"The Legacy of a Legacy"

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?

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