From: October 31, 2009
Sonoma County (California) Civil Rights Examiner
By Megan Cofey

The expanded federal Hate Crime Prevention Act, named for 1998 victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. and signed into law by President Obama on October 28, may end up being much more significant than its scope would suggest.

Although the Department of Justice avers that hate crime statutes deter bias-motivated attacks, it offers no statistics to substantiate that claim. Certainly the original 1969 federal law—which covered hate crimes based on the victims’ race, color, religion or national origin—was not sufficient to save the life of the new law’s less famous namesake, James Byrd, Jr., who was killed because he was black. And even if the new measure had been in effect when its other namesake, Matthew Shepard, was killed for being gay, it is unlikely that his crystal-meth-bingeing attackers would have been rational enough to be deterred by the threat of increased sentencing penalties for their crime.

What is much more certain about this latest incarnation of federal hate crime law is that it is the first ever piece of federal legislation protecting LGBT rights to become the law of the land (and the first federal measure to explicitly protect transgender people).

This fact could make the new statute far more significant than its debatable impact as a deterrent to bias-motivated violence. By its recognition that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans represent a group of people likely to be the targets of discrimination, the Hate Crime Prevention Act could be used to argue that LGBT citizens represent a “suspect class,” and as such, are deserving of “strict scrutiny” regarding any regulations affecting them.

In lay terms, this means that it may now be much harder for any government in the US to pass laws that discriminate against gay and transgender people, such as Proposition 8 in California or Question 1 in Maine. It also may speed the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the demise of DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Who knows but that this one seemingly modest new hate crime law could signal the beginning of a whole new era of civil rights recognition for LGBT Americans….