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Levin: It’s time for Wyoming to enact hate crime laws

  • July 8, 2015

In a Guest Column published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Anti-Defamation League Mountain States Regional Director Scott L. Levin writes:


The savage attack on parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina reminds us that South Carolina, like Wyoming, is one of only five states that cannot legally recognize such acts for what they are: vicious hate crimes.



Hate crimes laws are essential tools for countering such bias-motivated violence and mitigating its impact.


As with South Carolina, Wyoming has its own infamous ties to a savage attack made for no other reason than the personal characteristics of the victim.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered simply because of his sexual orientation. Five and a half years after the adoption of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, it is time for Wyoming to join the 45 other states that have already adopted a hate crimes statute.


Hate crimes laws are more than just vehicles for increasing sentences for criminals who target victims based on race, religion or other characteristics. They also are a way for society to recognize that these crimes strike special fear within victimized groups, fragment communities and tear at the very fabric of our democratic way of life.


Every major police organization in the country has supported hate crime laws. The FBI has been collecting hate crime data from 18,000 police agencies across the country since 1990. In 2013, the most recent FBI data, almost 6,000 hate crimes were committed – almost one every 90 minutes of every day.



Despite the unique societal impact of hate crimes and decades of data demonstrating the utility of these laws, there are still some detractors who claim that hate crimes laws punish thought or religious speech.


Not true. Americans are free to believe and say whatever they want. Hate crimes punish criminal acts. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld hate crime laws against a First Amendment challenge in 1993.



Others may wrongly assert that hate crimes laws provide special rights for certain minorities. But hate crime laws are color blind. These laws protect all Americans by covering crimes when the victim is targeted because of race, religion, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.



It would be naïve to think that racism and bigotry can be legislated away. But hate crimes laws are an essential component in deterring and preventing these crimes. Hate crimes charges help to send the important message that we recognize hate crimes for what they are and will not tolerate them.



Charleston is only the most recent reminder about the dangers of unchecked hatred and bigotry in America. It is long past time for Wyoming, South Carolina and the three other states that have thus far failed to do so to adopt hate crimes laws.