Two Victories on Capitol Hill

By Liza Doubossarskaia, NOW Communications Intern

Proponents of civil rights can rejoice at the passage of two legislative measures designed to promote justice and address discrimination.

First is Sen. Al Franken’s amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill. The amendment will deny defense contracts to companies that “restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.” That’s right, in this day and age we still have businesses whose policies deny women the right to seek justice. The results of such practices are devastating.

For example, Franken was motivated to act when he heard Jamie Leigh Jones’s story. Jones worked for defense contractor KBR in Iraq, where she reportedly was drugged and gang-raped by her male co-workers. Then in an attempt to cover up the activities of its employees, KBR had Jones locked in a shipping container without food, water or medical treatment. When Jones tried to sue KBR, she was told that due to a clause in her contract she could only hope for a private arbitration with no public transcript of the proceedings. Therefore, no judge or jury would be able to hear Jones’s case.

Fortunately, Franken’s efforts and Jones’ testimony before the Senate paid off, and the bill passed 68-30. Jones commented with the following: “It means the world to me. It means that every tear shed to go public and repeat my story over and over again to make a difference for other women was worth it.”

The second victory was achieved when the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in Congress. Shepard, who was gay, and Byrd, who was African-American, were brutally murdered for no other reason than their sexual orientation and race. The new measure expands existing hate crimes law to include crimes based on victim’s actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. The provision was passed as part of the 2010 Defense Authorization, which still must be approved by the Senate.

Critics of the bill argue that it will curtail the right to free speech, likening it to the “thought police.” However, the bill explicitly prohibits prosecution based on a person’s expression of his or her beliefs, ensuring that the sanctity of the First Amendment is preserved.

Here’s why we need the bill: according to the FBI, more than 77,000 hate crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation were committed between 1998 and 2007, and the trend shows no signs of decline. Brutal crimes against transgender individuals are also alarmingly high and in dire need of attention. The concerns addressed in the bill are violent crimes committed with the intent of terrorizing our families, friends and neighbors because they don’t fit in with the perpetrators’ narrow frame of mind.

Regardless of the naysayers, it is about time our elected representatives take a stand and perform their duty, which is safeguarding the rights of all of their constituents. We applaud the members of Congress who demonstrated a commitment to civil rights by passing vital legislation like Franken’s amendment and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

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