In the wake of the violent shooting by an anti-semitic man at the U.S. Holocaust museum, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, joined by the heads of various leading civil rights groups, promised to bring hate crimes legislation up for a vote before the August recess.
A long time cause of the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, who has just begun another round of chemo treatment for brain cancer and could not attend today's event, Reid predicted that this year, with Democrats close to a filibuster-proof majority, the legislation would pass.
The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for a gay man killed for his sexual orientation, would allow the Justice Department to assist in the prosecution of hate crimes committed against minorities that result in death or serious injury.
Opponents have, in the past, successfully killed the legislation saying it creates a separate class of crimes in the U.S. that is not needed. Current law, their argument goes, protects all citizens equally.
Human Rights Watch's Joe Solmonese said, "Hate crimes will simply not go away if they are ignored."
Some conservative groups, like the Traditional Values Coalition and American Family Association have warned that the bill will muzzle religious leaders from discussing parts of the Bible that deal with homosexuality and that the bill would create a special protection for pedophiles and those who commit similar crimes. The nonpartisan Factcheck.org analyzed the bill and found no such possibility.
"There's nothing in the bill that says pastors must zip their lips rather than denounce homosexuality, nor does it cover pedophiles, voyeurs, exhibitionists and dozens of other behaviors," a state says.
The bill expands the federal hate crimes statute to crimes "in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person."
A similar hate crimes bill passed the House on April 29, 249-175.