Chris Geidner is a lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C., and writes at Law Dork, voted the Best Law Blog in 2005. He also has written for Salon, The Washington Blade and FindLaw's Writ and has guest blogged at Wonkette, the ThinkProgress Wonk Room and the ACSblog. You can follow him on Twitter.
Eleven years ago this month, Matthew Shepard was killed. A bill that
had been slowly gaining support in Congress -- the Hate Crimes
Prevention Act -- soon became associated with Matthew, his memory and
the legacy of his death that is his mother's work.
The legislation allows for federal support to be given to local law enforcement in investigations of bias-motivated violence and for penalty enhancements under federal law when violent crimes are motivated by the real or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of the victim. The penalty enhancements previously could be sought for crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.
Today, as President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act
that includes the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes
Prevention Act in the East Room of the White House, he said, "After
more than a decade of opposition . . . we have passed inclusive hate
crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on
what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are."
The focus of the afternoon remarks was the entirety of the National
Defense Authorization Act, so much of his comments related to defense
spending and our military priorities. Later, however, the White House,
in partnership with outside foundation support, held an evening
reception for proponents of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which
included additional comments from the President.
At the evening remarks, Obama told of comments made by President Lyndon
B. Johnson upon the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Johnson
said then that with the passage of the legislation, "the bells of
freedom ring out a little louder." Today, Obama said that "bell rings
even louder now," but noted that the work of securing freedom for all
Americans "certainly does not end today."
The work is not done, but the question with which we are left today is what will be the legacy of today's signing.
Will the legacy be that with its passage, the White House and Congress
passed a watershed moment in LGBT equality to be followed in short
order by action on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; the
elimination of Don't Ask, Don't Tell from our Armed Forces; and
significant movement toward the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act?
As Elizabeth Birch, the former head of the Human Rights Campaign, said
at the evening reception, "This was the moment that was required in
order to have new laws follow."
Or, will this be, like so often in legislative struggles, the single
trinket doled out to a loyal constituency group until the next time the
group demands action?