The parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student murdered in 1998, assailed Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday for what they called hypocrisy on LGBTQ rights during a Justice Department ceremony commemorating a hate-crimes law named after their son.
The ceremony, held in the department’s Great Hall, marked the 10th anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in October 2009. The act expanded the 1969 federal hate-crime law to include crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, unable to attend due to a prior commitment, prepared a statement that was read at the ceremony by Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent who is now programs and operations director for the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The Shepards praised Justice Department employees who over the years have worked to implement and enforce the act, but they blasted Barr — and by extension President Donald Trump’s administration — because the department argued last week before the Supreme Court that employers should be able to fire employees because they are transgender.
The administration also has taken other steps to roll back protections for LGBTQ people.
“Mr. Barr, you cannot have it both ways,” the Shepards’ statement said. “Either you believe in equality for all or you don’t. We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy.”
The attorney general “must lead and demonstrate his refusal to accept hate in all its manifestations,” the Shepards said. “He must demonstrate courage, even if it means disagreeing with the administration. So far, he has done none of these deeds.”
Many of the guests at the ceremony rose for a standing ovation after Deitle finished reading the statement.
There was no immediate response from the Justice Department.
Matthew Shepard’s murder was a galvanizing event for LGBTQ Americans, epitomizing the pain and discrimination that many had experienced personally.
Shepard was found badly beaten and barely breathing on Oct. 6, 1998, after being tied to a split-rail fence on a dirt road near Laramie, Wyoming. He had spent 18 hours there in the near-freezing cold before a cyclist discovered him, at first mistaking him for a scarecrow. He died five days later. Police said his two attackers targeted him because he was gay. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas, was also killed in 1998. He was chained to the back of a truck and then dragged along a secluded road. Two of the white men convicted of his murder have been executed.
Wednesday’s ceremony included opening remarks by Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who outlined some new initiatives aimed at increasing the reporting of hate crimes and improving law enforcement’s response to them.
The event also featured a panel discussion about the first hate-crimes murder prosecution brought under the Shepard-Byrd act. That case involved a group of young white people in Mississippi who drove into the majority-black city of Jackson in 2011 to harass black people. A 49-year-old black man, James Craig Anderson, was run over and killed by a truck driven by one of the white youths.