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Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

On October 8th, the House passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act as part of the conference report on Defense Authorization for FY 2010 (HR 2647). In April, the House passed these provisions on a bipartisan basis by a vote of 249 to 175. This legislation will help protect Americans against violence based on sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, or gender identity by extending the federal hate crimes statute. 

All Americans have a fundamental right to feel safe in their communities.  Passage of this conference report by the House and Senate sends the federal hate crimes legislation to the President's desk to become the law of the land -- affirming the ideals of our founding fathers extending the protection of its laws to all: ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' Congress has been debating federal hate crimes legislation for more than a decade and it was nearly 11 years ago that Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered.  The time for debate is long over.

These provisions are supported by more than 300 law enforcement, religious, civil rights, disability, and other organizations, including such key law enforcement groups as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Executive Research Forum, Police Foundation, and National District Attorneys Association.

There has been a federal hate crimes law since 1968 because Americans recognize that bias-motivated crimes of violence harm all of society, in addition to the crime victim.  Americans understand that hate crimes have no place in America.  All Americans have a right to feel safe in their community.  We all remember the brutal murders of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd in Texas because we know that these bias-motivated murders impacted us all.  Yet, hate crimes continue to be persistent:  More than 118,000 hate crimes have been documented by the FBI since 1991.  In 2007 alone, there were 7,624 reported hate crimes.

This bill is focused on enhancing the resources of state and local law enforcement to prevent and prosecute hate crimes.  State and local authorities currently prosecute the overwhelming majority of hate crimes and will continue to do so under this legislation.  The special attention that these crimes require can stretch local law enforcement resources beyond their capacity.  Thus, the major focus of this bill is allowing the Federal Government to provide crucial federal resources to state and local agencies to equip local officers with the tools they need to prosecute hate crimes.  The legislation also authorizes the Attorney General to make grants to state and local law enforcement agencies that have incurred extraordinary expenses associated with the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.   

The bill also extends existing protections to more Americans. The current federal hate crimes statute provides for federal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes in the cases of a violent crime committed against persons because of their race, color, religion, or national origin.  This bill closes the current gaps in federal law to also provide federal assistance in the cases of a hate crime committed against persons because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. 

The bill does not limit First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression. The bill only applies to bias-motivated crimes of violence and does not impinge freedom of speech or religious expression in any way.  This bill is about violent crime.  Specifically, the measure includes strong protections for freedom of speech and association, including religious speech and association, stronger than in the House-passed version.  The provision contains rule of construction sections protecting First Amendment religious speech or expressive conduct from prosecution under the Act or admissibility at trial.  That ensures that religious leaders can continue to express their beliefs or serve their congregations as they see fit.