Update on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act

The U.S. Senate late Thursday gave its final approval to federal legislation that provides grants and law-enforcement assistance to local governments to prevent hate crimes based on victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity, and allows federal prosecutions where local authorities cannot or will not secure convictions.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was attached earlier this week to the annual military funding bill, which then cleared the chamber on an 87-7 vote at 10:30 p.m. Thursday. The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences between the two versions of the legislation.

The Matthew Shepard Act is one of those differences, included only in the Senate version of the bill. It would allow the federal government to prosecute anti-gay hate crimes when local authorities cannot or will not, in the same way the Justice Department already can intervene in racist hate crimes. It also authorizes grants to local jurisdictions to back up their own efforts against bias crimes.

While conferees will have to decide if it remains in the final compromise version, expected to face a vote in September after the upcoming congressional recess, the House is on record strongly supporting the Act in a separate, stand-alone vote back in April. Congressional leaders have also stated their commitment to make sure it remains in the Pentagon spending bill that the president could receive as early as September.

Conference committee members will also decide the fate of other amendments to the Act, including requirements for new Justice Department rules on the use of the hate-crime prosecution authority; the addition of military personnel, their families and their property to the bill’s protected classes; and most controversially, the authority of federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in some hate-crimes cases, a move opposed by many of the Matthew Shepard Act’s supporters.

Also, while the Senate removed $1.75 billion in additional F-22 fighter jet purchases which the Pentagon does not want and over which the president threatened a veto of the Defense bill, the House version still contains a smaller $389 million F-22 purchase, to which the White House still objects. That too will be a key negotiating point between the two sides.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation hopes that once a final Defense bill (S. 1390) finally passes Congress, the conference committee will have removed the damaging recent amendments from the hate-crimes portion of the bill, giving President Obama unblemished legislation he can sign.

Jason Marsden
Executive Director

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