I am heartened that Congress has finally passed a bill that would strengthen the ability of governments at all levels to investigate and prosecute hate crime.
The bill, known as The Matthew Shepard Act, has my full support and I hope you will join me in honoring its passage when President Obama signs it into law this week.
I remember very well a quiet Tuesday evening in December, 1985. We were in the midst of the holiday season and I was home with my wife Peggy and 2-year-old son Jason. Less than 10 minutes from where we live, an African American woman was home with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.
Hearing a commotion, the woman looked out her front window in horror as four men in white sheets burned a cross on her lawn. One of the men yelled, "This will be your last warning," as he ran. It wasn't the first time the family had been targeted. Since moving into the neighborhood two years before, they had been slurred and threatened numerous times -- all because of the color of their skin.
Within a span of days, racial epithets and a swastika were spray painted a few blocks from the family's home, and a second cross was burned in the area on Christmas Eve. All told, 46 incidents of racial harassment were reported that year against African Americans in Cleveland.
I believe that the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens, and I was frustrated that nothing was being done to stop these crimes against society beyond the typical statements and press releases. As a state senator, I felt it was time to pass Ohio's first hate crime legislation and send a message that we would not tolerate such hateful acts.
The hate crime legislation I authored toughened penalties for assault and harassment motivated by the victim's race, color, religion or national origin. I believe that increased punishment for such crimes is justified because intimidation of this nature escalates the act from an offense against an individual to a symbolic action toward an entire segment of society. It tears at the fabric of society and magnifies the scope and effect of the crime.
My hate crime bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state legislature and was signed into law in 1986. It was challenged a few years later, and having since been elected Ohio's attorney general, I was in the unique position of defending my own bill in front of the Ohio Supreme Court.
The law's opponents argued that we were attempting to stymie free speech and limit political expression. They erroneously believed the hate crime law punished thought, not crime. As I successfully argued, a person can "legally" harbor or express any thought or feeling he or she wishes, no matter how offensive. Our law was directed at criminal conduct, and it was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court.
When we passed Ohio's hate crime law nearly a quarter century ago, fewer than 30 states had such laws on the books. Now, some 45 states have hate crime statutes. We have no doubt come a great distance, but FBI statistics prove there is still more work to be done. The FBI receives reports of nearly 8,000 hate crimes each year. Of those, about 15 percent are linked to sexual orientation, which ranks third after those involving race and religion. It's long past time we do more to prevent hate crimes at the national level, particularly those targeting gays and lesbians.
If I were in the U.S. Senate today, The Matthew Shepard Act would have my full support because, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently said, "Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees and laws may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless."
So please join me in celebrating passage of The Matthew Shepard Act. Together we can live up to the principle that in America, we treat all of our citizens with dignity and respect.
Lee Fisher is Ohio's Lieutenant Governor and is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Please visit FisherForOhio.com to learn more about his campaign.