It’s been more than 10 years since the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was kidnapped, brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence on a freezing night in the Wyoming wilderness.
In the years since, Congress has tried and failed to expand federal hate crimes laws to include violence based on sexual and gender orientation. But yesterday, that changed.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed hate crime legislation that extends civil rights protections to people based on sexual orientation, saying the nation would be a place where “we’re all free to live and love as we see fit.”
The law expands federal hate crimes to include those committed against people because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also loosens limits on when federal law enforcement can intervene and prosecute crimes.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black Texas man dragged to his death in a racially motivated killing the same year as the attack on Shepard.
In the signing ceremony in the White House, Obama said that the gay rights protections represented “long-awaited change” that would protect people who are victimized because of “who they love, or who they are.”
“You understand that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones but break spirits, not only to inflict harm but to instill fear,” the President added.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the expanded hate crimes legislation – in his words – the next great civil rights bill. He said the new law will enable the Justice Department to assist local and state prosecutors, who handle most hate crimes. Holder said it also gives federal government the ability to press cases when local authorities do not.
Civil rights groups and their Democratic backers on Capitol Hill have tried for a decade to expand the hate crimes law, but fell short because of a lack of coordination between the House and Senate, or opposition from President George W. Bush.
This time, the bill got through when Democrats attached it to a must-pass $680 billion defense measure over the protests of Republicans.