Hate crimes bill may not get past Dubya

Last Thursday, the Senate officially passed the Matthew Shepard Act, a hate crimes legislation bill named after the college student who, in 1997, was beaten to death and left tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. — because he was gay.

Current hate crime laws limit the definition of a hate crime to those punishable acts committed due to bias against a particular race or religion. Furthermore, a crime directed at someone can only be charged as a hate crime if it intends to deter a person from performing a federally regulated activity, such as voting or going to school.

The Senate’s efforts are particularly laudable because this new bill, if signed into law, would extend the scope of hate crimes to those committed because of bias against sexual orientation, gender, and disability. Furthermore, it would eliminate the federal activity requirement.

Similar attempts have failed in the past, but with a Democrat-controlled House, the bill now has the best chance of becoming a law. However, it remains unclear if President Bush will sign the new legislation. The White House has issued no formal statement on what it intends to do, but Dubya made previous mentions of vetoing such legislation.

The President isn’t alone in his distaste. Though the Democrats voted unanimously in favor of the bill, many Republicans voted against it because they believed it unfairly penalized particular perpetrators of crimes because of their thoughts. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman questioned the new bill’s usefulness, writing, “murder is against the law, even in Wyoming, and ... Shepard’s attackers are now serving sentences (life in prison) that would not be any longer if this law had been in effect then.”

True, murder is murder. However, there’s a difference between murdering a random person and murdering a person of a particular community in order to intimidate the other members of that community. This bill also makes it possible to punish acts of intimidation aside from murder. For any gay store owner who has had the word “faggot” spray-painted across his door, or for any woman who has been intimidated to leave a male-dominated career field, this bill could surely be welcome relief.

If President Bush vetoes the bill, two-thirds of the House and Senate will have to vote in favor of the bill to pass it again. We say: Keep pushing.