The Matthew Shepard Case and the Debate Over Hate-Crimes Laws

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Once a cause such as hate-crimes legislation becomes associated with something as emotionally devastating as the savage murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, it becomes difficult to question the merits of the issue.

That is one lamentable fact.

Another is that too often those articulating the merits, or lack thereof, make many of us wish we could switch planets.

Witness Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who, in recently questioning the need to extend federal hate-crimes legislation to include sexual orientation, managed to make any further debate nearly untenable.

Who wants to join forces with someone who would use the word "hoax" in regard to Matthew Shepard's murder "that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these [hate crimes] bills"?

This was not one of the GOP's brighter moments in a field lately dim with low lights.

What Foxx meant, of course, was that those advocating expansion of hate-speech protections to include sexual orientation often cite Shepard's case as justification.

Hate as a motivation is a relatively easy case to make in Shepard's horrific murder. A 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming, he was picked up in a bar by two monsters posing as gay men, who lured him outside to rob him. They then beat him so severely that he died of his injuries.

The killers, now serving life sentences, left Shepard tied to a fence, where he was found 18 hours later. During the trial, a police investigator testified that one of the murderers taunted Shepard, saying, "It's Gay Awareness Week." Shepard's fatal injuries included many kicks to the groin area.

So, yes, one may reasonably conclude that the men wanted to do harm to Shepard because he was gay. That's not a stretch of the imagination. It is certainly not a hoax. And those who want to make terrorizing gays a federal crime certainly don't need excuses.

The real question for Foxx and other foes of the proposed legislation: Does our revulsion at hate-motivated crimes justify creating special laws only for certain people? The federal hate-crimes law passed in 1969 created special victims in cases where crimes were found to have been motivated by racism or hatred of a victim's ethnicity, national origin or religion. The legislation being considered would add hatred of the victim's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.

The rationale for these laws has been that a crime against a person for any of the above reasons is really two crimes -- one against the individual and another against the group to which he or she belongs. By that definition, Matthew Shepard's murder may be viewed as a terrorist act against all gays, who would have felt more fearful as a result.

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