The Matthew Shepard Act, as part of the 2010 Department of Defense Authorization Bill that it is attached to, has now officially cleared the Senate and is making its way toward President Obama’s desk. First Though, it must make a stop at a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation before final votes in September. It goes to the conference with four amendments made to it, one of which adds a death penalty provision.
Details on the Four Amendments Made to the Matthew Shepard Act
Approved on Monday, three of the amendments were conceived by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.); they accomplish the following:
- Authorizing the possibility of the death penalty for certain hate-crimes.
- Extending the hate-crimes law to include “injury” against U.S. military service members and their families.
- A requirement that all hate-crime prosecutions adhere to guidelines as set out by the Attorney General, and that they operate on a “neutral and objective” basis.
A further amendment was then added by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) seeking to place conditions on the application of the death penalty provision, restricting the measure’s use until the attorney general of the state where the hate-crimes law is being applied has created the appropriate standards for the use of capital punishment as a sentence for a hate-crime conviction.
All four amendments were approved, three with unanimous consent, and the amendment to extend hate-crime protections to military service personnel passing with a vote of 92-0.
According to this article by the Washington Blade, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explained that the amendments made to the Matthew Shepard Act were part of a deal with Republican Senators in order to have the hate-crimes provision clear the Senate. Leahy also states that he supports all four of the amendments “in modified form”.
How Have LGBT Groups Reacted to the Matthew Shepard Act Amendments?
Not well. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups have decried the addition of the death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union have perhaps said it best through Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel, when noting:
“The expansion of the federal death penalty stands in stark contrast to furthering the cause of civil rights in the United States”
In a letter sent by a coalition of gay rights, civil liberties and religious groups amounting to 50 sponsors in total, the addition of the death penalty was denounced. You can read the letter here.
The Human Rights Campaign group has called the the amendments “poison pills” introduced by Jeff Sessions, (a Senator that gave a fifty minute speech as to why hate-crimes should not be extended to include LGBTS) to kill the bill.
This, in itself, also inmplies the bitter irony inherent in a man arguing that extending hate-crimes legislation to include LGBT protections could endanger the liberty of moral objectors and religious persons, then adding a federal death penalty clause.
Personally, I think three of the amendments are ill conceived and arbitrary. One places undue demands on the Attorney General to redefine hate-crimes when there has long been a perfectly applicable definition in existing law.
The second extends protections to military personnel and their families which, firstly, is a move poorly defined; what constitutes “injury”, or, indeed, “family” – and secondly, is unneeded due to existing tougher penalties for attacks made on service members or veterans already being in place.
The death penalty provision we will come to below.
Lastly the final amendment designed to curtail the death penalty’s enforcement is a reactionary damage limitation exercise from the Democrats indicative of the difficulty that making concessions to the Republican opposition has left them in.
What’s Next for the Hate Crimes Legislation?
The Hate Crimes legislation will go to a conference committee where the disparities between the House and Senate versions of the bill will hopefully be reconciled.
One thing is clear, a Matthew Shepard Act including the death penalty is an insult to the young man after whom it was named, violating the spirit of the legislation as it was intended and making bitter any sense of victory or joy that could have resulted from its long overdue passage.
The Matthew Shepard act has already been attached to a DOD authorization bill, a move which no one really wanted. But we accept, we adapt and we move forward.
On the issue of the death penalty provision, though, we can not accept, we can not move forward. Instead, we must fight for it to be removed. There is no other way.
Luckily, there is now such a gulf between the House and Senate versions of the bill that there will be room to maneuver, but it is imperative that we make Senators and Representatives mindful of the fact that they must remove the death penalty provision from the hate-crimes legislation whilst still making it known how vital the nature of the Matthew Shepard Act, or what was once the Matthew Shepard Act, is.
Take Action and Stop the Death Penalty Provision:
You can reach the capital switchboard at 202.224.3121. You will be asked who you wish to speak to. Ask for your Senator or Representative’s office. Don’t know who they are? Find out here, where you’ll also be able to access a list of email addresses and direct office phone numbers if you wish to contact your representatives that way.
Once you are in touch with your Representative or Senator’s office, reiterate your support for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention legislation, but also urge them to work toward removing the death penalty provision when the bill goes to conference.
You may wish to cite the general consensus opinion that the House version of the bill has always been more comprehensive, better structured and well targeted than its Senate counterpart. Reverting to that format would allow the hate-crimes prevention legislation to operate in the way that it was intended.
Lastly, please pass on any emails or contact information you do have to friends and family and spread the important message that whilst we do want hate-crimes legislation and therein equal status, we do not want it with the spectre of the death penalty being allowed along for the ride.