US hate crimes law faces key vote in Senate

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Attempts by Republican Senator and Presidential hopeful John McCain to block new legislation that would extent hate crimes to cover LGBT people will come to a head tomorrow with a crucial vote.

Democratic Senator Harry Reid has filed a cloture motion on the hate crimes bill, a procedural move to overcome Senator McCain’s objection to bringing the amendment to the floor.

60 Senators will need to vote in favour of the cloture motion for passages of the hate crimes bill to be added as an amendment to the Department of Defence (DoD) authorisation bill.

In April the proposed new federal law, that would grant protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the United States, was named after the murdered gay teenager who brought the issue of hate crimes into the American consciousness.

Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in freezing Wyoming in 1998.

He was the victim of a hate crime, targeted because he was gay, and his story has inspired Senators from both sides to try to bring forward new laws.

Veteran Senator Ted Kennedy, who sponsored the bill, spoke on the floor of the Senate yesterday and urged his fellow legislators to support it.

“I’d like to speak for a moment regarding the Hate Crimes Amendment,” he said.

“At a time when our ideals are under attack by terrorists in other lands, it is more important than ever to demonstrate that we practice what we preach, and that we are doing all we can to root out the bigotry and prejudice in our own country that leads to violence here at home.

“Hate crimes violate everything our country stands for. They send the poisonous message that some Americans deserve to be victimised solely because of who they are.

“These are crimes committed against entire communities, against the nation as a whole and the very ideals on which our country was founded.

“The time has come to stand up for the victims of these senseless acts of violence – victims like Matthew Shepard, for whom this bill is named, and who died a horrible death in 1998 at the hands of two men who singled him out because of his sexual orientation. Nine years after Matthew’s death – nine years – we still haven’t gotten it done. How long are we going to wait?”

The proposed legislation will strengthen the ability of federal, state and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, religion, colour, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

It would also enable the US Justice Department to assist in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The bill will also provide grants to help state and local governments meet the extraordinary expenses involved in hate crime cases.

According to the FBI, sexual orientation bias motivated 14% of such crimes in 2005.

However, last month a White House spokesman reiterated that President Bush will veto the hate crimes legislation.