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Public Statements

The Matthew Shepard Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


THE MATTHEW SHEPARD ACT

Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I would like to speak for a moment regarding the Hate Crimes Amendment. At a time when our ideals are under attack by terrorists in other lands, it is more important than ever to demonstrate that we practice what we preach, and that we are doing all we can to root out the bigotry and prejudice in our own country that leads to violence here at home. Now more than ever, we need to act against hate crimes and send a strong message here at home and around the world that we will not tolerate crimes fueled by hate.

Since the September 11 attacks, we have seen a shameful increase in the number of hate crimes committed against Muslims, Sikhs, and Americans of Middle Eastern descent. Congress has done much to respond to the vicious attacks of September 11. We are doing all that we can to strengthen our defenses against hate that comes from abroad. We have spent billions of dollars in the war on terrorism to ensure that international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida are not able to carry out attacks within the United States. There is no reason why Congress should not act to strengthen our defenses against hate that occurs here at home.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers are fighting for freedom and liberty--they are on the front line fighting against evil and hate. We owe it to our troops to uphold those same principles here at home.

Hate crimes are a form of domestic terrorism. They send the poisonous message that some Americans deserve to be victimized solely because of who they are. Like other acts of terrorism, hate crimes have an impact far greater than the impact on the individual victims. They are crimes against entire communities, against the whole nation, and against the fundamental ideals on which America was founded. They are a violation of all our country stands for.

We are united in our effort to root out the cells of hatred around the world. We should not turn a blind eye to acts of hatred and terrorism here at home. We should not shrink now from our role as the beacon of liberty to the rest of the world. The national interest in condemning bias-motivated violence in the United States is strong, and so is our interest in condemning bias-motivated violence occurring world-wide. When the Senate approves this amendment, we will send a message about freedom and equality that will resonate around the world.

Hate crimes violate everything our country stands for. These are crimes committed against entire communities, against the Nation as a whole and the very ideals on which our country was founded.

The time has come to stand up for the victims of these senseless acts of violence--victims like Matthew Shepard, for whom this bill is named, and who died a horrible death in 1998 at the hands of two men who singled him out because of his sexual orientation. Nine years after Matthew's death--9 years--we still haven't gotten it done. How long are we going to wait?

Senator SMITH and I urge your support of this bipartisan bill. The House has come through on their side and passed the bill. Now it is time for the Senate to do the same. This year, we can get it done. We came close twice before. In 2000 and 2002, a majority of Senators voted to pass this legislation. In 2004, we had 65 votes for the bill and it was adopted as part of the Defense authorization bill. But--that time--it was stripped out in conference.

The President has threatened to veto this legislation, but we can't let that threat stop us from doing the right thing. Let's display the same kind of courage that came from David Ritcheson, a victim of a brutal hate crime that scarred him both physically and emotionally. This spring, David testified before the House Judiciary Committee. He courageously described the horrific attack against him the year before--after what had been an enjoyable evening with other high school students near his home in Spring, TX.

Later in the evening however, two persons attacked him and one attempted to carve a swastika into his chest. He was viciously beaten and burned with cigarettes, while his attackers screamed terrible epithets at him. He lay unconscious on the ground for 9 hours and remained in a coma for several weeks. After a very difficult recovery, David became a courageous and determined advocate. Tragically, though, this life-changing experience exacted its toll on David and recently he took his own life. He had tried so hard to look forward, but he was still haunted by this brutal experience.

My deepest sympathy and condolences go out to David's family and friends coping with this tragic loss. David's death shows us that these crimes have a profound psychological impact. We must do all we can to let victims know they are not to blame for this brutality, that their lives are equally valued. We can't wait any longer to act.

Our amendment is supported by a broad coalition of 210 law enforcement, civic, disability, religious and civil rights groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Anti-Defamation League, the Interfaith Alliance, the National Sheriff's Association, the Human Rights Campaign, the National District Attorneys Association and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. All these diverse groups have come together to say now is the time for us to take action to protect our fellow citizens from the brutality of hate-motivated violence. They support this legislation, because they know it is a balanced and sensible approach that will bring greater protection to our citizens along with much needed resources to improve local and State law enforcement.

Our bill corrects two major deficiencies in current law. Excessive restrictions require proof that victims were attacked because they were engaged in certain ``federally protected activities.'' And the scope of the law is limited, covering hate crimes based on race, religion, or ethnic background alone.

The federally protected activity requirement is outdated, unwise and unnecessary, particularly when we consider the unjust outcomes of this requirement. Hate crimes now occur in a variety of circumstances, and citizens are often targeted during routine activities that should be protected. All victims should be protected--and it is simply wrong that a hate crime--like the one against David Ritcheson--can't be prosecuted federally because it happened in a private home.

The bill also recognizes that some hate crimes are committed against people because of their sexual orientation, their gender, their gender identity, or their disability. Passing this bill will send a loud and clear message. All hate crimes will face Federal prosecution. Action is long overdue. There are too many stories and too many victims.

We must do all we can to end these senseless crimes, and I urge my colleagues to support cloture on this amendment and to support its passage as an amendment to the DOD authorization bill.

Madam President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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