Hate Crimes Bill Would Give Nation "The Ability to Respond"

"Hate crimes are nothing less than attacks on those values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom. They are a betrayal of the promise of America." 

Contact: Kate Bigam or Jason Fenster
202.387.2800 | news@rac.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 18, 2009 - At today's hearing on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S.909), Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, delivered written testimony on the urgent need for the passage of this legislation. Rabbi Sapersteins testimony follows: 

Thank you for the opportunity to address you regarding the urgent need for increased protections against violent, bias-motivated crimes. I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Center is the public policy arm of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis. I want to recognize the contributions that my staff, most particularly Jason Fenster, made in helping to prepare this testimony. The Reform Jewish Movement is the largest in American Jewish life, and we have strongly supported the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 909) for a decade. We commend Senators Kennedy, Collins, Snowe, Leahy and Specter for their vital leadership on this issue, as on so many others. We agree with them: It is time to see this bill passed and enacted into law.


We are here today remembering too many violent acts, too many children taken from parents, too many parents taken from children, and too many families and communities shaken by violent acts of hate. Most recently, the nation was shocked and horrified by the murder of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. That day, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism remarked, "That todays shooting at the United States Holocaust Museum should take place at a site expressly created to teach the world about the destruction and devastation brought about by human evil deepens the resonance of this terrible act." The bigotry and hatred evident in this attack, and the others discussed at this hearing, vividly reaffirm the ever-present dangers of violent hate crimes.


We have no illusions about this bill. We know that it will not end hate crimes overnight. But we believe that crimes based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, gender, and, yes, crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, are crimes against our communities, against the values of our nation and against all of humanity. A crime born of intolerance tears at the very fabric of our freedoms. Hate crimes are more than mere acts of violence. They are more than murders, beatings and assaults. Hate crimes are nothing less than attacks on those values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom. They are a betrayal of the promise of America. They erode our national well-being. Those who commit these crimes do so fully intending to pull apart the too-often frayed threads of diversity that bind us together and make us strong. They seek to divide and conquer. They seek to tear us apart from within, pitting American against American, fomenting violence and civil discord.


We take to heart the commandment ÐYou may not stand idly by when your neighbors blood is being shedÓ (Leviticus 19:16). Too much blood has been shed and too many lives have been lost. We must not continue to permit the senseless loss of life caused by hatred and bigotry. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act will give law enforcement officials the tools they need to ensure that hate crimes are handled appropriately so terrorized communities need not live in constant fear of violence.


This legislation would provide support to local law enforcement from federal officials through training and technical assistance, ensuring that these egregious crimes are handled properly and that victimized communities are set on a path toward healing. Of course, states will continue to play the primary role in investigating and prosecuting bias-motivated violence, but this legislation will grant the federal government the authority to intervene in cases where local authorities are either unable or unwilling to do so.


The murder of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania last July is one shocking reminder of the need for federal assistance in the prosecution of hate crimes. Luis was viciously attacked by teenagers who shouted racial epithets at him as they brutally assaulted him, punching him to the ground and kicking him in the head, leaving him unconscious. Afterwards, according to a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund titled ÐConfronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009," one of the assailants reportedly yelled (expletives omitted) "Tell your Mexican friends to get€out of Shenandoah or youll be€laying next to them.Ó Luis, a father of two, died two days later, and his attackers, despite clear evidence of bias-motivation, were convicted only of simple assault.


Surely, this is not justice. Surely, the values we hold as a nation demand more. Surely, such intolerance, hatred, and violence cannot be condoned in our society. Our federal government has a responsibility to seek justice for families of victims and to work to protect our communities from hate-motivated violence. In Luis case, the Department of Justice has jurisdiction to bring charges because the assault took place on a public road, and they have indicated that they may yet do so. Had the assault occurred in private space, only a few feet away, the federal government would have no recourse. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would remove the barrier regarding federally protected activity and to help ensure that these horrific offenses are handled appropriately.


The data that exists regarding hate crime statistics is troubling. First, we are well aware that hate crimes are underreported. The LCCR-EF report stated, current numbers Ðalmost certainly understate the true numbers of hate crimes committed. Victims may be fearful of authorities and thus may not report these crimes. Or local authorities do not accurately report these violent incidents as hate crimes and thus fail to report them to the federal government." 


Prime among the under-reported populations are the disability community. According to the aforementioned report, Ðthe biggest reason for underreporting of disability-based hate crimes is that disability-based bias crimes are all too frequently mislabeled as "abuse" and never directed from the social service or education systems to the criminal justice system.Ó Vulnerable communities should be safe from violence and should be safe to report those claims and be protected by the appropriate authorities.


Perhaps more troubling are reports that hate crimes committed against victims because of their sexual orientation have risen to their highest level in five years. Victims from the LGBT community have been the third most frequent target of hate crimes for the past decade, behind Blacks and Jews. Regardless of a given communitys views on the LGBT community, the presence of continued intolerance and violence is disgraceful. It should not and cannot exist in an America where are people are treated equally, where all people are deserving of respect and dignity.


While the Reform Jewish Movement proudly welcomes LGBT individuals, there are, of course, faith traditions that hold different views. To be clear, this legislation only applies to bias-motivated crimes and will not affect lawful public speech or preaching, and therefore need not be of concern to any religious community. In fact, in order to make certain that such concerns were addressed, specific language is included in Section 10 that reads, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit any constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct or activities (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), including the exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and peaceful picketing or demonstration." 


Let me be as clear I know how to be: as a Rabbi and Lawyer who has taught Church/State law at the Georgetown University Law Center for 30 years, I can say with conviction that the beliefs or words of any person, clergy or otherwise, will not be prosecuted. This legislation is concerned with hate crimes. It deals with violent conduct and attempts at bodily injury, not the preaching or sermons of members of the clergy. This is a "belt and suspenders" approach to protecting religious liberty, and should address all reasonable concerns.


We are cognizant of the range of views among faith traditions on the issue of homosexuality. While we hope that those faith traditions who are not accepting of LGBT individuals will recognize that spark of divinity in every person, their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion will not be affected by this legislation.


Despite the attention focused on opposite views, it should be clear that there are a large number of religious organizations and denominations, the Reform Jewish Movement included, who have come together to support the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In all, 48 national faith-based organizations joined a sign-on letter sent to Senators earlier this month affirming,


"Hate is neither a religious nor American value. The sacred scriptures of many different faith traditions speak with dramatic unanimity on the subject of hate. Crimes motivated by hatred or bigotry are an assault not only upon individual victims' freedoms, but also upon a belief that lies at the core of our diverse faith traditions _ that every human has inherent value and that every life is sacredÓ (See attachment for the full letter and endorsing organizations).


The Jewish people specifically know all too well the dangers of unchecked persecution and of failing to recognize hate crimes for what they are: acts designed to target and terrorize an entire community. Furthermore, we find in our textual tradition a call to combat hatred and speak up for justice and righteousness. In Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, we are commanded, ÐYou shall not hate another in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17) and shortly thereafter we read "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18). Hatred breeds hate and we must strive for a community, a nation, and a world driven by love for our fellow person.


In closing, our nation must have the ability to respond. That is what this bill is about. It grants us the ability to protect the pluralism that lies at the core of our democracy. It grants us the ability to stand as one nation, with the victims and survivors of hate crimes and to say, this crime against you was a crime against all of us, and we will not rest until justice is done. It grants us the ability to give our loftiest ideals their greatest form of expression in a law that seeks to protect all Americans from ever being targeted on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.


In this spirit, I urge you to vote out the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, put into law true family values of tolerance, respect and love.