The State of the Matthew Shepard Act and “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later”

Peter Zumthor's St. Benedict Chapel (1988) is a humble, human-scaled church perched on a Swiss mountain slope.

Matthew Shepard IILet’s establish some lines of demarcation.

If you oppose the Matthew Shepard Act (the bill’s official name is the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act), you’re most likely Republican.

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You believe hate-crimes laws are unnecessary, that the 1969 federal legislation establishing such laws was scurrilous, needless. You believe we don’t need hate-crimes laws for criminal acts driven by someone’s gender, sexual orientation or disability. You believe such laws ruin the First Amendment rights of religious leaders — whether such leader merely disagree with it or advocate violence, in coded terms or explicitly, against it. For you, this video is your moral compass:

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If you favor the Matthew Shepard Act, you are in luck. The House version of the bill (actually, there are several, but we’re focusing on H.R. 1913 and an earlier one, H.R. 1592) passed by a 249-175 vote, with 18 Republicans defying their party and joining 231 Democrats (although 17 Democrats joined 158 Republicans in voting no).

The Senate version of the bill is S. 1105, but it has been attached as an amendment to another bill, S. 1390, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. This is somewhat sneaky but hardly new for the Senate — indeed, adding the amendment passed the Senate 63-25. As the hate-crimes bill is not attached to the House version of the Defense Authorization Act, all this will have to be reconciled in conference committee.

The text of both bills are very similar. I’ve selected two elements because I find them informative. For example, one element of the House bill reads:

(1) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONAL ORIGIN- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person–

(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

(B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

(i) death results from the offense; or

(ii) the offense includes kidnaping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

Much earlier in the text, there is this text in the Senate bill:

Congress makes the following findings:

(1) The incidence of violence motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim poses a serious national problem.

(2) Such violence disrupts the tranquility and safety of communities and is deeply divisive.

(3) State and local authorities are now and will continue to be responsible for prosecuting the overwhelming majority of violent crimes in the United States, including violent crimes motivated by bias. These authorities can carry out their responsibilities more effectively with greater Federal assistance.

(4) Existing Federal law is inadequate to address this problem.

(5) A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected.

(6) Such violence substantially affects interstate commerce in many ways, including the following:

(A) The movement of members of targeted groups is impeded, and members of such groups are forced to move across State lines to escape the incidence or risk of such violence.

(B) Members of targeted groups are prevented from purchasing goods and services, obtaining or sustaining employment, or participating in other commercial activity.

(C) Perpetrators cross State lines to commit such violence.

(D) Channels, facilities, and instrumentalities of interstate commerce are used to facilitate the commission of such violence.

(E) Such violence is committed using articles that have traveled in interstate commerce.

(7) For generations, the institutions of slavery and involuntary servitude were defined by the race, color, and ancestry of those held in bondage. Slavery and involuntary servitude were enforced, both prior to and after the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, through widespread public and private violence directed at persons because of their race, color, or ancestry, or perceived race, color, or ancestry. Accordingly, eliminating racially motivated violence is an important means of eliminating, to the extent possible, the badges, incidents, and relics of slavery and involuntary servitude.

(8) Both at the time when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States were adopted, and continuing to date, members of certain religious and national origin groups were and are perceived to be distinct `races’. Thus, in order to eliminate, to the extent possible, the badges, incidents, and relics of slavery, it is necessary to prohibit assaults on the basis of real or perceived religions or national origins, at least to the extent such religions or national origins were regarded as races at the time of the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

(9) Federal jurisdiction over certain violent crimes motivated by bias enables Federal, State, and local authorities to work together as partners in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.

(10) The problem of crimes motivated by bias is sufficiently serious, widespread, and interstate in nature as to warrant Federal assistance to States, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes.

And so it is with this backdrop that the Tectonic Theater Project is presenting The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, a dramatic followup to its groundbreaking example of documentary theater, The Laramie Project, that chronicled the life and death of Matthew Shepard and the effect of that young man’s horrific death on the town of Laramie, Wyoming.

Here are the details for this fascinating, genuinely worldwide event. More than seeing the play, however, get involved. Tell your Senators and Representatives to vote yes on the Matthew Shepard Act. Unless you’re a Republican and you thrill to the murder of homosexuals.

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall

Over 120 theatres in all 50 states and 7 countries
to participate in premiere reading of epilogue
to Tectonic Theater Project’s groundbreaking original work

Tickets are on sale now for the New York one-night-only reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, the compelling and groundbreaking epilogue to the play, The Laramie Project, which was written in response to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. The epilogue, which is written by Tectonic Theater Project members Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber, will be performed simultaneously in theatres across the globe on Mon., Oct. 12, 8pm.

“We are thrilled to have over 120 theaters in all 50 states and seven countries participating in this historic event, from major regional theaters like Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to University-based partners such as Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah, to community theaters like the PURE Theatre in South Carolina,” said Greg Reiner, Executive Director of the Tectonic Theater Project. “This premiere has been organized in the spirit of Hallie Flanigan’s Federal Theatre, but with some very modern technological twists, including the online connection and an interactive Q&A following the performances and our own Facebook-like online community at www.laramieproject.org.”

In New York, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later will be directed by Moisés Kaufman and held at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall (1941 Broadway). Tickets can be purchased at www.LincolnCenter.org or by calling 800-721-6500.

Immediately after the global reading, theatres will be able to participate in a special talkback featuring a panel that will include creators, cast members, and other key individuals involved in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. The talkback will be available via a special satellite hookup from Alice Tully Hall with participating theatres from around the country able to submit questions via Twitter. Additional details on how to submit questions during the talkback will be announced in the coming weeks.

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later focuses on the long term effect of the murder of Matthew Shepard on the town of Laramie. It explores how the town has changed and how the murder continues to reverberate in the community. The play also includes new interviews with Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard and Mathew’s murderer Aaron McKinney, who’s serving dual life sentences, as well as follow-up interviews with many of the individuals from the original piece.

In tandem with the premiere, an online interactive community will be launched where participants can blog, upload video and photos, and share their stories about the play, experiences in preparing and presenting the epilogue in their communities. The members of Tectonic Theater Project will be active participants in the online community, offering participants feedback and encouragement.

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died 6 days later. His murder became a watershed historical moment in America that highlighted the violence and prejudice lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face.

For more information, visit www.TectonicTheaterProject.org.

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  • Lauren

    Could be opposed to hate crimes legislation simply because it violates the first amendment right to free speech — having nothing to do with political affiliation or religious beliefs. Expressing your opinions (disgusting and unjust as they might be) is your right in this country even if I disagree with them. Punish severely for the action that might be motivated by hatred — it’s not OK to assault someone for any reason. Opinions don’t make the crime better or worse based on whom it is perpetrated or why. Free speech guarantees that not everyone has to have the same point of view or be afraid of persecution if they express currently unpopular ones (and “politically correct” does change). Legislation against free speech is wrong and unconstitutional.

    • There’s a difference between hate speech and violence. The Nazis do have the right to march in Skokie. However, if they incite violence, I believe that is prosecutable. The argument that the act impinges on free speech has no merit.

  • Lauren

    If they solicit people to commit violence, tell their members to commit violence, arrest them and hold them accountable! If they just march while uttering racist slurs and expressing their views, they’re allowed to do that under freedom of speech (and guess what, that’s not a parade I’m going to attend — I have that right).
    But if violence does occur, do you give the Nazis parade people a stiffer penalty for the death or beating of a black or Jewish, or whatever kind of person because they hate him than for the death or beating of the white blond-haired person who steps in front of the first man to protect him, but whom the Nzis don’t hate because he meets their Arian standards? A crime is a crime. It really doesn’t matter WHY it is committed.

    • Well, see, I think it does matter why.

  • michael

    Of course it matters. That’s the difference between first degree and second degree murder: MOTIVE!
    In this country we’re keenly aware that some groups are under more risk then others. Policemen for example are more exposed to risk then civilians. So the law sets higher punishments for crimes against policemen to BALANCE THE SCALES.
    Not to mention, and this is the most hypocritical part of this whole debate, that RELIGION IS AS OF NOW IN THE FEDERAL HATE CRIME LEGISLATION. That means you cannot discriminate based on religion. So why is my religious belief more important or more worthy of protection than my sexual orientation or my gender identity?????