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Clergy call for passage of Matthew Shepard Act
More than 1,300 sign letter directed at Senate

by Christopher Johnson
WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 1,300 faith leaders have signed onto a letter urging the U.S. Senate to pass the Matthew Shepard Act (S.B. 1105), a bill which would update the current hate crimes law. Additionally, a new full-page print ad appeared in a recent edition of Roll Call that highlights the broad support of black clergy and civil rights leaders voicing support for hate crimes legislation. The new ad is sponsored by a coalition that includes the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the National Black Justice Coalition.

The letter was released by HRC, along with a coalition of organizations that include the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Action Center. The 1,385 faith leaders signing the letter represent a broad spectrum of religious voices urging passage of a hate crimes bill that is expected for a Senate vote in the near future.

The letter states, “We would not support a bill that did not contain ample protections for free speech, including preaching and statements of religious belief. This law does not criminalize or impede upon religious expression in any way.” Read the complete letter at www.clergyagainsthate.org.

In addition to the letter, the ad features a theologically diverse group of black clergy representing tens of thousands of Americans speaking out in support of proposed hate crimes legislation.
The ad states, “As leaders in the black clergy community, we want to voice our strong support for the Matthew Shepard Act. Our faith tells us that an act of hate upon one member of our community — whether because of race, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability — is an attack on all of us.”

The Matthew Shepard Act would update the current hate crimes statute, enacted in 1964, to include more Americans and provide increased protections for those groups already covered under existing law. Nothing in the legislation prohibits the lawful expression of one’s deeply held religious beliefs. Neither the current hate crimes law nor the expanded measures criminalize thoughts or speech; they only criminalize violent acts.

During the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the bill, committee members explicitly noted that point. To further ensure that there was no ambiguity, an additional amendment offered by Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) was adopted at markup. The amendment unequivocally stated that conduct protected under the First Amendment’s free expression and free exercise clauses was not subject to prosecution.

On May 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 1592), by a strong margin of 237 to 180 — with more than 20 Republicans voting in support.

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