Overdue changes to hate crimes legislation | Sex in the Suburbs

It’s about time.

The Senate finally approved a measure that expands the reach of current federal hate crimes legislation. Earlier this spring, the House approved a similar bill, and the expansion has the support of President Obama. So why has it taken over a decade to get this far?

The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was murdered in 1998, according to a July 17 AP report. This legislation would provide expansion of current federal hate crime legislation, removing restrictions of federal involvement previously limited to only certain activities. In addition, it includes crimes “perpetrated against people because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability,” the report said.

I understand we aren’t all going to agree on what we believe, especially about gay rights. I do hold out hope that we at least can agree that no one deserves to be targeted and tortured because of who they are — whether they are men, women, gay, straight, transgender or disabled.

Some Christians (a religious group and therefore protected under current hate crime legislation) are claiming the expansion of the law will result in a type of persecution of those who oppose homosexuality due to their religious beliefs. Groups such as the Christian Coalition of America have conveyed concern that changes in the law would mean they could no longer preach against homosexuality. The truth of the matter is that they would be allowed to continue to verbally express their beliefs from the pulpit or anywhere else. The proposed changes do make it a crime to target and inflict bodily injury on someone because they are a member of one of the identified groups.

Nowadays, when Americans are targeted and killed because of their religious beliefs or their ethnicity, many people of differing beliefs and ethnicities band together in support of the persecuted. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the Ku Klux Klan was the norm, and Jim Crow laws were the order of the day. There was a time when the world took a long time to respond to six million people being systematically exterminated because of their religion and race. We have made progress. However, because this particular legislation includes sexual orientation, it has been under fire from the beginning.

I am frustrated that people who are loudly defending their current protection under the law due to religion want to deny the same rights to those who are asking for it due to sexual orientation. We don’t have to agree, but we do need to be civil and provide basic rights and protection to all our citizens. That’s what makes America, America.

I am not talking about sexual abuse or rape — those are crimes. I am talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, which are not. Not anymore than it is a crime to be a man or a woman or a person with a disability. This is America, and you are free to believe whatever you believe. You may not, however, inflict injury on anyone because of it. That’s the difference, and that should have the full force of our federal legislative process behind it.