Can You Legislate Hate? The House Says No

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On Thursday, Dennis and Judy Shepard did what some parents will find inconceivable. They accepted, and by some accounts brokered, a deal sparing one of their son's killers from a possible death sentence, condemning him instead to two consecutive life terms. The two Wyoming men convicted of the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard will serve identical back-to-back incarcerations, and while Dennis Shepard told Aaron McKinney he would "like nothing better" than to see McKinney die, he thought Matthew would want McKinney to live.

But though the Shepards don't want the death penalty for McKinney, they do want some movement on federal hate crime legislation. Moments after the sentence was announced, Dennis Shepard stood on the Laramie courthouse steps and pleaded with members of the U.S. House of Representatives. "In memory of Matthew and all the other victims of crimes motivated by hate, my wife and I implore the Congress of the United States to pass this law." "This law" is the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which provides harsher penalties for perpetrators of crimes spurred by the victim's gender, sexual orientation or disabilities, as well as race, religion, color or national origin. The law would also permit federal involvement in cases that local authorities chose not to prosecute.

Unfortunately for the Shepards, the bill stalled in the House — after whizzing through the Senate — and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere anytime soon. Given the ongoing, caustic budget debate, "Congress isn't moving on much of anything at the moment," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. Even if there were serious debate going on, the Hate Crimes Bill, according to Shannon, isn't getting much of a reception in the House because some representatives don't see the bill as necessary. "Very few people are for hate crimes," says Shannon. "But there are reasonable people who wonder if we need another piece of legislation that federalizes what has always been the jurisdiction of the states. These people figure that murder is murder, and assault is assault, and we already have very harsh penalties for people convicted of those crimes, including the death penalty." Supporters of the measure are increasingly frustrated by the House's inaction, and the issue is already affecting other legislation. Last week, President Clinton vetoed a major spending bill because it did not contain the Senate-approved Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Whether or not the President, soon to engage in major horse-trading with the Congress over the budget, can force the measure through is yet to be seen.