President Obama signed major civil rights legislation on Wednesday, making it a federal hate crime to assault people based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. The new measure expands the the scope of a 1968 law that applies to people attacked because of their race, religion or national origin. The U.S. Justice Department will have expanded authority to prosecute such crimes when local authorities don't.
The provision, called the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is attached to a defense authorization bill. It is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student tortured and killed in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death the same year.
The measure expands current hate crimes law to include violence based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. To assure its passage after years of frustrated efforts, Democratic supporters attached the measure to the must-pass defense policy bill over the steep objections of many Republicans.
The measure was a priority of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that had been on the congressional agenda for a decade. During the signing ceremony, Obama acknowledged Shepard's mom, Judy, and remembered that he had told her this day would come. He also gave a nod to Kennedy's family. Going forward, Obama promised, people will be protected from violence based on "what they look like, who they love, how they pray or why they are."
Read or watch President Obama's remarks before signing the legislation:
After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we've 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. I promised Judy Shepard, when she saw me in the Oval Office, that this day would come, and I'm glad that she and her husband Dennis could join us for this event. I'm also honored to have the family of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought so hard for this legislation. And Vicki and Patrick, Kara, everybody who's here, I just want you all to know how proud we are of the work that Ted did to help this day -- make this day possible. So -- and thank you for joining us here today. (Applause.) So, with that, I'm going to sign this piece of legislation.
Obama also delivered some remarks about the legislation later in evening:
The Human Rights Campaign released a tribute video to Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, for their fight to protect other gays from the kind of violence that killed their son.
Watch it, and read Judy Shepard's statement on today's bill signing below:
After a decade of debate, persistent advocacy and 14 separate congressional floor votes, President Barack Obama today signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in a White House ceremony attended by the Shepard and Byrd families.
"When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long," said Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother and the president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Board of Directors.
"The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged," she continued. "But with President Obama's support and the continually growing bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate lining up behind the bill this year, it became clear that 2009 was the year it would finally happen."
The legislation allows federal authorities to pursue charges in violent crimes motivated by the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability, in cases where local authorities cannot or will not secure appropriate convictions. It also opens up federal aid to local law enforcement for training, prevention and investigation.
"We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly," Shepard added. "But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans."
The Matthew Shepard Foundation's work for an inclusive society continues after passage of this landmark legislation. In addition to advocating for workplace and housing equality, equal rights for same-sex couples, and an end to the ban on gay and lesbian military service, the Foundation continues to reach out to schools and corporations nationwide to encourage respect for human dignity and differences.