Updated June 19, 11 a.m.
A National Review blog called The Corner has posted a letter written by unnamed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which asks the U.S. Senate to reject the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
While the letter on the National Review web site is unsigned, a full copy of the letter is available on the USCCR web site. The letter was signed by six of the commission’s eight commissioners. Four of the signers are Republican. Two Democratic commissioners declined to sign.
The letter’s main argument — not substantiated — is that the new bill somehow enables the federal government to “re-prosecute” individuals who have been acquitted by local juries that are tolerant of violence against minorities. The letter fails to acknowledge that existing federal hate-crime law already substantially performs this function; the new legislation adds sexual orientation to the categories of victims covered by existing law.
Focus on the Family falsely stated that the commission is “not known for being on the side of social conservatives on policy issues.”
But according to critics, the federal commission has been stacked with conservative appointees for much of the past three decades. Earlier this year, Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the commission, wrote in the New York Times:
To help resolve the issue of gay rights, President-elect Obama should abolish the now moribund Commission on Civil Rights and replace it with a new commission that would address the rights of many groups, including gays.
Berry explained: “The Commission on Civil Rights has been crippled since the Reagan years by the appointments of commissioners who see themselves as agents of the presidential administration rather than as independent watchdogs. The creation of a new, independent human and civil rights commission could help us determine our next steps in the pursuit of freedom and justice in our society. A number of explosive issues like immigration reform await such a commission, but recommendations for resolving the controversies over the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people should be its first order of business.”
Focus on the Family also mischaracterized the commissioners’ concerns by appending an allegation by religious-rightists that the legislation — which the commissioners agree is narrowly tailored to punish violent crime — somehow punishes antigay speech by pastors. Section 10 of the bill specifically protects religious speech, and restricts prosecution to “violent acts motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of a victim.”
Neither the commissioners’ letter nor the ensuing religious-right rumor-mongering addressed an obvious concern: If the current legislation (which adds sexual orientation to existing hate-crime laws) is objectionable, then why is nothing wrong with the current laws providing enhanced penalties for crimes committed on the basis of the victim’s race or religion?