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
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.