The family of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming man killed in a brutal homophobic attack in 1998, had sharp words for Attorney General William Barr in a speech delivered Wednesday at the Justice Department.
The striking speech, at an event marking the anniversary of a hate crimes law named for Shepard in the Justice Department’s ornate Great Hall, drew a standing ovation from an audience that included department attorneys.
“We find it interesting and hypocritical that (Barr) would invite us to this event commemorating a hate crime law named after our son and Mr. Byrd, while at the same time asking the Supreme Court to allow the legalized firing of transgender employees,” said Cynthia Deitle, the programs and operations director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, referring to James Byrd Jr., a black man killed by white supremacists in 1998.
“Mr. Barr, you cannot have it both ways. If you believe that employers would have the right to terminate transgender employees just because they are transgender, then you believe they are lesser than and not worthy of protection. If so, you need not invite us to future events at the Department of Justice that are billed as celebrating the law that protects these same individuals form hate crimes,” she said.
Deitle delivered the speech written by Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, and apologized on the pair’s behalf for missing the event, noting that they were traveling.
Barr was not present for the event, but the chief of the department’s civil rights division, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, sat on stage behind Deitle as she rebuked his boss. Dreiband spoke earlier in the event about the Justice Department’s commitment to prosecuting hate crimes.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law just under 10 years ago by President Barack Obama. It expanded a federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
A Justice Department spokeswoman on Wednesday disputed the Shepard family’s characterization of the department’s position in a case argued before the Supreme Court last week concerning protections for transgender individuals from employment discrimination.
Appearing before the justices last week, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, arguing for the Trump administration, asserted that the law in question does not bar discrimination based on transgender status or sexual orientation.
Francisco said that the case isn’t about whether as a “matter of policy” federal civil rights law should forbid discriminating on the bases of transgender status or sexual orientation. It’s about the fact that, from his perspective, the current law doesn’t provide those protections. Congress would need to change the law, he said.
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has charged more than 70 people with crimes motivated by hate, including the men allegedly behind attacks at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, in 2018 and 2019, according to Dreiband.
“Hate crimes threaten the health of our community life and a decade after the passage of the Shepard Byrd Act and more than 20 years after the brutal murders of the men for whom it was named, prosecuting hate crimes remains a top priority here at the Department of Justice,” Dreiband said.