A decade after a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed in Wyoming, legislation designed to help prosecute similar outrages may be on the verge of enactment. President Obama should press the Senate to take up -- and improve -- a House-passed hate crimes bill informally known as the Matthew Shepard Act. But he shouldn't stop there in redeeming his campaign promise of legal equality for gays and lesbians.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would allow the federal government to provide financial assistance to state and local police to investigate and prosecute acts of violence grounded in hatred of gays and lesbians, just as it does for other hate crimes. In rare cases, when local authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute, the Justice Department could step in.
The bill isn't perfect. Its definition of hate crimes includes acts of violence motivated by bias based on gender or disability, despite scarce evidence that such attacks are remotely as prevalent as bias crimes based on race, religion or sexual orientation. As we have observed, too broad a definition of hate crimes makes it easier for opponents to characterize the legislation as a symbolic exercise in identity politics rather than a response to a real problem. This defect, however, could easily be remedied by the Senate.