Bennet: Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act Would Ensure America's Laws Reflect Our Values

Urges Colleagues to Support Long-Overdue Hate Crimes Legislation As Part of Defense Authorization Act Conference Report

In a speech before the U.S. Senate, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado, urged his colleagues to support the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 as part of the Defense Authorization Act Conference Report.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would strengthen the ability of federal, state, local, and tribal governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.

Below is the full text of Bennet's remarks, as delivered:

Mr. President, one of the most important duties we have as members of this chamber is to ensure that our troops have the tools and equipment they need to succeed, and it's an obligation we all take very seriously.

I'd like to thank the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senators Levin and McCain, for producing such a balanced and bipartisan bill that invests in our nation's defense and provides, as President Obama has said, "For the few... who have borne the overwhelming burden of our security."

Making sure our troops have the very best America can offer is absolutely essential to our defense and keeps our military second to none.

I rise today to discuss a provision in this Conference Report that reflects a different source of pride -- a source of pride that projects another characteristic of America which defines us as a model of freedom and equality under our laws. These values form a foundation of America's strength that is our most enduring asset, both in times of war and peace.

I rise today in strong support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. With this bipartisan passage of the Defense Authorization Conference Report today, we will have taken another substantial step forward for our values as Americans.

It has been 10 years since the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was first introduced in the Senate. During this period, we've seen a marked increase in hate crimes. In my home state of Colorado, there were 156 hate crimes incidences reported to the FBI in 2007 -- 75 of were on account of the victim's race and 32 on account of his or her sexual orientation.

One of these victims was 18 year old Angie Zapata of Greeley, who was beaten to death in her home in July of 2008. Press accounts indicated Angie's attacker claimed that he went after her because he hates transgender and gay people. A jury found that the attacker was motivated by prejudice based on sexual orientation. The jury's verdict marked Colorado's first-ever conviction for a hate crime against a transgendered person.

This crime was heinous and the attacker will rightfully serve his time because of the laws in my state. Our experience in Colorado, which already has strong hate crimes laws on the books, serves as an example of how to protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of where they live.

Our laws must reflect our values. Communities are threatened anytime there is a violent crime motivated by racial animus, or by bigotry against one's gender or sexual orientation. Hate crimes are serious challenges for our law enforcement personnel, they can lead to additional crimes and they can raise the level of animosity among communities.

These unique challenges have rightly caused Congress to look to get involved. As we learned in the civil rights era, sometimes communities need guidance and resources from the federal government when they have to confront the most emotional and dangerous kinds of crimes.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act is designed to help local law enforcement manage these situations and it can also help deter hate crimes from ever happening in the first place. This important law strengthens the current federal hate crimes statute by protecting would-be targets of violence based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. And it closes a significant loophole under current law that prevents hate crime prosecution when a victim is not engaged in a "federally protected activity." All victims should be protected, and these crimes should be deterred, regardless of where or when an attacker may be planning to commit a violent crime.

This legislation also authorizes the Department of Justice to provide grants to state, local and tribal authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes more effectively. Grants are also made available for programs that combat hate crimes committed by juveniles, including training by local law enforcement to effectively identify, prosecute and prevent these hate crimes.

M. President, I would like thank all of those who have worked so hard over the past 10 years to update our hate crimes laws, particularly the late-Senator Ted Kennedy, who long championed this cause.

In a speech he gave back in 2007 on this very floor - on this very subject - Senator Kennedy asked how long those living in fear of attack or reprisal would have to wait before Congress did the right thing. How long, he asked, would it take for Washington to show that violence on account of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity is absolutely inconsistent with our values and, as such, will not be tolerated in the United States of America.

Today, Mr. President, is Senator Kennedy's answer. Today, we send a bill to the President that ensures America's enduring principles apply to all Americans. Today, we approve a bill that, as Senator Kennedy predicted, "sends a message about freedom and equality that will resonate around the world."

It's a proud moment. I urge my colleagues to set the right example, and pass this important legislation.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.