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Commemorating the Fifth Anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Commemorating the Fifth Anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

By Michael Lieberman

This month we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), the most important, comprehensive, and inclusive federal hate crime enforcement law passed in the past 40 years.  The Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center played critical roles helping to lead the very broad coalition of civil rights, religious, educational, professional, law enforcement, and civic organizations that advocated for the HCPA for more than a dozen years.

Though some opponents raised federalism and First Amendment concerns, the most persistent, fierce efforts to block passage of the measure came from religious conservatives and their allies on the Hill and in the Bush Administration who ominously warned that enactment of the bill would advance gay rights.  That allegation ignored the fact that any member of LGBT communities who would be “benefiting” from the bill would, by necessity, be dead or beaten and bloody.  Among the false claims opponents repeatedly asserted over the years was that enactment of the bill would inhibit clergy from preaching the Gospels and the Bible.

For many years, RAC led the coalition’s efforts to counter these false claims, coordinating statements of support from a wide array of interfaith voices.  These voices, along with support from every major law enforcement organization in the country and vocal support from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.  were essential to achieving final passage of the measure.

Now, five years later, advocates can be certain that our coalition lobbying efforts and the sustained efforts by our congressional champions, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, were worthwhile.

  • Thousands of state and local law enforcement officials have received training on the HCPA’s tools and federal-state partnership opportunities.
  • The FBI and the Department of Justice have investigated dozens of cases and has brought about two dozen cases, including several cases in states that lack their own hate crime laws.
  • The Department of Justice has vigorously defended the constitutionality of the HCPA.  ADL, the URJ, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Women of Reform Judaism joined 36 other national civil rights, religious, and law enforcement organizations in filing the first amicus brief in support of the Act in a case involving a series of violent intrareligious crimes against Amish individuals.
  • Following the August 2012 murder of six Sikh worshippers by a white supremacist skinhead at their Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held hearings on “Hate Crime and the Threat of Domestic Extremism.”   ADL and RAC submitted comprehensive statements.

Much work remains to be done.  Hate crimes remain a serious national problem. In 2012 (according to the most recent data available) the FBI documented more than 6,500 hate crimes – almost one every hour of every day. The most frequent were motivated by race, followed by religion and sexual orientation.  Of the crimes motivated by religion, more than 60 percent targeted Jews or Jewish institutions.

The fifth anniversary of the HCPA provides an important teachable moment. It is a fitting occasion for advocates, the Obama Administration, and Congress to promote awareness of the HCPA, to report on the progress our nation has made in preventing hate violence, and to rededicate ourselves to effectively responding to bias crimes when they occur.

Michael Lieberman is the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington Counsel and Director of the League’s Civil Rights Policy Planning Center.  He chaired the broad coalition of groups that worked for 13 years to enact the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA).

Published: 10/22/2014

Categories: Social Justice