Matthew Shepard’s parents have delivered a stinging rebuke to Attorney General William Barr and Donald Trump’s Department of Justice for endorsing discrimination against transgender Americans and taking other anti-LGBTQ actions.
It came at an event Wednesday at the DOJ commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first pro-LGBTQ federal law. It expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include those committed because of a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, plus disability and gender, and it was signed into law by President Barack Obama. The event sought to highlight the DOJ’s commitment to fighting hate crimes like those that took the lives of Shepard, beaten to death in an antigay attack, and Byrd, a disabled Black man killed by white supremacists, both in 1998.
But it’s “hypocritical” for Barr to commemorate the law while the DOJ argues that it should be legal to fire employees simply because they’re transgender, said a statement submitted by Judy and Dennis Shepard that was read by Cynthia Deitle, programs and operations director at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, as the Shepards were unable to attend the event, CNN reports.
“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,” the statement read. “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 from hate crimes. Either you believe in equality for all or you don’t. We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy.
“The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is the law of the land and is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, we have seen government funding and resources shift to fighting international terrorism in the decade since the passage of Shepard-Byrd, despite the fact that hate crimes have led to far more deaths of Americans here at home. Acts that would be considered domestic terrorism in any other country.”
The statement also noted, “As the head of the Department of Justice, [Barr] can take a stand as a member of this administration to disavow and condemn any person who fuels the fires of hate with their words and actions. He must lead and demonstrate his refusal to accept hate in all its manifestations. He must demonstrate courage, even if it means disagreeing with the administration. So far, he has done none of these deeds.”
At the Supreme Court last week, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who is part of the department, argued that federal civil rights law does not prohibit employers from discriminating against people because of the sexual orientation or gender identity. The court heard cases brought by two men who say they were fired for being gay and a woman fired for being trans.
Barr did not attend the event, but the chief of the DOJ’s civil rights division, Eric S. Dreiband, “sat stoically” behind Deitle as she read the statement, The New York Times reports. When she finished, she received a standing ovation from the audience, which included several DOJ attorneys.
A Justice Department spokeswoman took issue with the Shepards’ statement, telling CNN Francisco was not arguing for anti-LGBTQ discrimination as a “matter of policy,” but rather saying that current law — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — does not address that issue in its section on sex discrimination, Title VII. Congress would have to change the law, not the courts, the spokeswoman said.
A DOJ news release posted after the event did not mention the Shepards’ statement but quoted Barr as saying, “Hate crimes are especially reprehensible because of the toll they take on families, communities, and our nation as a whole. Precisely because they are fueled by bias against specific people and groups, they also are a grave affront to America’s foundational principles and ideals.”
Barr has also drawn the ire of LGBTQ people and allies with a speech he gave at Notre Dame University last week in which he said parents should be able to have their children excused from school lessons that deal with LGBTQ history. “Many states are adopting curriculum that is incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian principles,” he said. He further said that religious schools should have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.