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Debate shifts to LDS over crime bill

Victim's mother points at church, then backtracks

Judy Shepard, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, says sexual orientation issues pose a threat to those not familier with the subject.
Judy Shepard, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, says sexual orientation issues pose a threat to those not familier with the subject.
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

A press conference supporting a hate-crimes bill nearly turned into an LDS-Church bashing session Sunday night — almost, but not quite.

Judy Shepard, mother of the murdered gay man Matthew Shepard, spoke at a Salt Lake City town meeting on the need for a bill providing enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of certain groups.

Also supporting HB68, the bill pending in the Legislature, were Mayor Rocky Anderson; Forrest Crawford, institutional diversity assistant to the president of Weber State University, Ogden; and Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, sponsor of the bill.

About 130 attended the town meeting in the Salt Lake City-County Building.

Twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998 by two men who attacked him, tied him to a fence, and beat him because he was gay. The men later were sentenced to life in prison.

His mother came to Utah on Sunday to support the hate-crime bill. A controversial aspect of HB68 is that it specifies that victims of hate crime can be people attacked because of their race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age or gender. A competing measure does not specify these classes.

During a press conference after the town meeting, Shepard, a Wyoming resident, commented on obstacles in Utah to passing a strong law against hate crimes. She believes the term "sexual orientation" is making passage of such a bill difficult.

"In Utah I can identify readily what I think is your largest barrier, and that would be the LDS Church," she said.

Speaking more generally, Shepard said sexual orientation issues are threatening to people who are not familiar with the subject. "I fondly refer to it as selective ignorance. They choose to not educate themselves about the gay and lesbian community so the prejudices just continue," she said.

Certain oppressed groups are singled out for violence, she added. "The African-American community, the Jewish community, and in your state, I must think that sometimes members of the LDS community, are singled out for violence."

It's necessary to define categories in hate-crime legislation so that it's easier to spell out what evidence is needed for prosection of a hate crime, she added.

Litvack stood beside her during the press conference. The Deseret Morning News asked whether he agreed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the biggest barrier to passage of the legislation.

"No, I respectfully disagree with Judy," he said.

"I don't think it's the LDS Church. I think the LDS Church took a huge step last year in their statement."

By that, he meant a February 2003 statement by LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills, who said the church did not oppose a hate-crimes bill then under consideration.

The church abhors hate crimes and its opposition to same-gender marriage should never be interpreted "as justification for hatred, intolerance or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies either individually or as a group," Bills added.

Litvack said no matter what their faith may be, "it's people's interpretation of their particular religion — that they feel that somehow supporting this legislation with the inclusion of sex orientation violates some kind of principles of their faith" that is the problem.

"And I think that goes beyond just the LDS faith."

Shepard then backpedaled.

"I'd have to agree with that," she said. "He explained it much better than I."

Another reporter asked what had prompted her to single out the LDS Church. "I was doing the really, totally, not good thing, lumping them all together," she said.

That's not a good thing to do, Shepard repeated.