Eleven years after two men were attacked and left for dead, President Obama signed legislation named for them. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expands existing hate crime protections to outlaw attacks based on sexual orientation or gender, in addition to race, color, religion or national origin. Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager, was pistol whipped and left to die on a cold Wyoming October night and James Byrd, an African American Texas man, was tied and dragged by a pickup truck until he too died. Incidents four months apart but forever linked by the nature of their brutality.
President Obama offered words of praise and encouragement to those who worked tirelessly on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act legislation. "You understand we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break break bones but to break spirits. Not only to inflict harm but to instill fear," the President told a crowd of activists gathered in the East Room celebrating the legislation. The President cited statistics by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of more than 12,000 reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation over the last 10 years. He noted that many incidents are never even reported.
President Obama stood at the podium with teary family members of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. "No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability," the President said.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act was attached to the $680 billion Defense Authorization Bill that President Obama signed into law Wednesday afternoon. President Bush had threatened to veto a similar hate crimes measure. Opponents of the bill fear the law could be used to criminalize conservative or religious speech who might consider homosexuality a sin.