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Remembering hate crime, 20 years later

By Kenya Smith

In 2009, a bill was passed and signed in honor of two individuals who became tragic victims of hate crimes.

The first tragedy happened 20 years ago today, on June 7, 1998, where an African-American man named James Byrd Jr. was tied up and dragged for three miles on an asphalt road behind a pick-up truck driven by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.

Byrd was killed instantly after his body hit the edge of a culvert. Byrd’s killers took his decapitated body and dumped it in front of a black cemetery.

On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, two men pistol-whipped 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in the head, causing his skull to crack open, all because he was gay. Then, they pinned him crucifix-style to a fence and left him unconscious for 18 hours. The next day, a cyclist found Shephard still pinned up. The young victim was taken to the hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries six days later. The perpetrators of these two crimes were convicted without the assistance of hate crime laws; hence, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was created.

While the purpose of the bill was to expand the 1969 federal hate crime law, there was opposition against the bill. Many in the Christian community alleged that the bill would violate their freedom of speech and religion. They claimed that the bill would punish people for expressing views against same-sex relationships. I remember as a teenager seeing articles that people would share concerning the allegation about this bill. As I got older, I felt that something was a little off. For some reason, I did my research by using fact-checking websites, and I found out that the allegation surrounding the Shepard-Byrd Act was indeed fabricated.

I dug even deeper into this issue by reading the actual bill for myself. There was nothing in the Shepard-Byrd Act that supported what some evangelicals had claimed. Division 3 of Section 4710 of the bill even says, “Nothing in this division, or an amendment made by this division, shall be construed or applied in a manner that infringes any rights under the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” Read the bill for yourself.

Therefore, I’m glad that the bill is now law because no one deserves to be harassed, threatened, tortured or murdered because of their ethnicity, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed in some of the leaders of the Christian community regarding this bill. Instead of reading and comprehending the Shepard-Byrd Act, some decided to oppose the bill and lie about the bill in order to scare and rouse up the crowd. Recently, they’re doing the same thing with a certain bill in California.

No wonder why people are leaving Christianity, and no wonder there’s division in this country. It’s one thing to respectfully disagree with someone over a sensitive topic, but lying to get our way will always cause unnecessary fear and retaliation.

Kenya Smith is a Suffolk native. Email her at s.kenya43@yahoo.com.