"The Legacy of a Legacy"

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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?

Expressing gratefulness for today's signing, Judy Shepard, attending the signing ceremony, said that today meant "everything" to her and her family. She said in a statement, though, that the law was only the first step and that "each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans." Vicki Kennedy, who also attended, said of her late husband, the Senator Edward Kennedy, "I think he's smiling today."

Rep. Baldwin said at the signing ceremony today, "Our efforts will not cease . . . in passing other very important civil rights legislation." She added, referring to ENDA and the federal employee domestic partner benefits bill she is spearheading: "I hope on both bills that we'll see floor action before the year is out," though she noted that health care reform could hold that up." Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's Washington, D.C. bureau director, was likewise optimistic, saying that today's signing "emboldens" civil rights activists.

When the President says that such actions as the signing of today's legislation "is about who we are as a people," it is clear that he is on the side of equality advocates in this struggle. What he did not do, but could have, was to explain in terms of the twisted path taken by the hate crimes legislation exactly how he views the legislative process and how he and his Administration intend to mirror this legislative success in the case of ENDA and other equality priorities.

As Americans watch the struggle Majority Leader Harry Reid has faced in the Senate over health care reform, one can see why some advocates have grown concerned with the desire of the President to confront Congress on any items in his legislative agenda - let alone those in the sphere of "social issues."

If a few Democrats in the Senate were to declare that they're uncomfortable with ENDA's gender identity protections, would Obama push back on the issue? What about conservative Democrats who might balk at the elimination of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? As for the repeal of DOMA, even today Attorney General Holder was unwilling at the afternoon signing ceremony to place the Administration on one side or the other of the marriage repeal question in Maine.

In this past year - almost exactly one year since the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency - our country's policy priorities have taken a clear turn. Only as Obama's term continues forward, and as the Administration's long-term legislative strategy becomes more clear, will Americans be able to see -- both from Obama and his congressional allies -- what the long-term legacy of today's bill-signing will be.

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