Tonight the U.S. Senate passed Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vermont) amendment to the defense bill. The amendment is popularly known as the Matthew Shepard Act which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes protections as well as provide resources to local law enforcement agencies to deal with hate crimes.
The debate focused on two lines of opposition. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) attempted to argue that there was no need for the bill since states are handling hate crimes adequately. He proposed an amendment that would make provision to study what the states are doing. Laws differ from state to state. Only about half include sexual orientation and very few include gender identity. Another problem with the Hatch proposal is that many states in the form of county sheriffs and local district attorneys are not availing themselves of state hate crimes laws. Can anyone name a recent example of a DA in Tennessee going for the penalty enhancement in a case in which sexual orientation was motivation for the crime? Finally, the federal bill provides resources to local law enforcement agencies to deal with this class of crime.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) was more successful in his line of objection. He expressed concern that Matthew Shepard would have a chilling effect on speech and the expression of religion. His amendment to the amendment clarifying the scope of these freedoms and their limitations with respect to hate crimes passed by a large margin. But by passing his amendment he gives conservatives fewer reasons to oppose Shepard.
There's still much work to do before the bill gets to the president's desk for signature, but it's on the right track.