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America: One Tick Closer to God

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My partner, David Bohnett, and I sponsored the Wednesday afternoon White House reception honoring President Obama's signing of the Hate Crimes Bill. The crowd was a noble and dignified collection of invincible fighters. GLSEN's executive director Dr. Eliza Byard was there. So were the Shepards, James Byrd's proud sisters, and those who have learned the hard way that anger and hate are the ugly antithesis of anything Jesus, Mohammad, G*d, Buddha, or any other religious leader ever would want for their flock.

Unless you've lived in a box, you're aware the Hate Crimes Bill was bogged down in committee and Congress throughout the Bush years. It's hard to imagine a more hateful time in America than those Bush years. The anger was enervating, the vitriol was exhausting, and the overall tone of right wing rhetoric was un-American and backward. Finally, for the first time in over a decade, with the swing of a pen, President Obama turned his back on the right wing's ridiculous rhetoric by doing the right thing.

The old law defined a "hate crime" as one motivated by religion, race, national origin, or color. The new hate crimes act expands the federal definition of hate crimes to include assaults based on sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity. The lion's share of the law states:

Whoever . . . willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person . . . [shall be liable for criminal penalties stated in this legislation].

Appended to the hate crimes amendment was a statement ensuring that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the bases if his or her speech, beliefs, or association. In other words, if a person peaches against homosexuality, people of color, or any group -- and a listener goes out and commits a lynching, the speaker cannot be held responsible.

According to 2006 FBI statistics, hate crimes based on sexual orientation constituted the third highest category reported and made up 15.5 percent of all reported hate crimes. Only race-based and religion-based crimes (almost all anti-Semitic) were more prevalent than hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Now all three of these categories of Americans are protected under this legislation.

Of course Pat Robertson bellowed his gloom and doom saying that America's religious rights are threatened and inferring that America is run by a bunch of liberals who want to lead the United States to the burnished gates of hell. It's his usual brand of bitter loathing and fear that has made him very rich and powerful. But he's even protected under this law.

America is not further from God by Obama's signing of this bill. We are one step closer to being a more embracing nation that leaves any final judgment up to the Almighty. By professing a stronger legislative disdain for hate we are honoring God's love, power, and delight for all of us.

During Obama's East Room speech, I was standing in the front row. There among the disabled, the black, the Jewish, the Muslim, the Native American, the Christian, and the disenfranchised, I was not looking at our President, but watching Judy Shepard. It's impossible to imagine what she went through when she received the news of her son's assault. Matthew Shepard had been beaten so brutally that his face was covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears. But now a mother's pain was right in front of me, the ripples of that brutal murder welling out of her eyes. She wasn't crying because America was going down some fear monger's road to hell, but simply because she had brutally lost her son, and finally through her steadfast efforts, his death was not in vain.

Her tenacity is America. That's what we must mark as true. We cannot surrender to turmoil and heartache, but get up, find peace in doing, and make tomorrow a better day.

Judy, Dennis, and Logan Shepard fought hard for Wednesday, Matt would be very proud. They're American heroes. I'll take their lead over the naysayers any day. Bravo America, continue the evolution.