This Week

Issue: "California: Bellwether state," Oct. 24, 1998

Who's bashing whom?

As Matthew Shepard lay dying at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., a legion of political opportunists blamed Christians for his savage beating and used the tragedy to call for hate-crimes laws. The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student passed away after his skull was so badly smashed that doctors could not perform surgery. The two attackers who pistol-whipped him and tied him to a fence in near-freezing temperatures could get the death penalty. When Mr. Shepard died, the rainbow gay-rights flag was lowered to half staff in San Francisco's Castro District as demagogues mounted their soapboxes and waved bloody shirts. "Right now, we are living through a period of extreme and concentrated anti-gay backlash," said Kim Mills of the Human Rights Campaign. "The leaders of the most powerful religious political organizations-some of which have headquarters right here in Colorado-have made a strategic political decision to target gays and lesbians. These groups include Focus on the Family and its political offshoot, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Coral Ridge Ministries, and a host of others." This rhetoric was not limited to the political fringe. NBC's Katie Couric essentially repeated Ms. Mills's charge in the form of a question to the governor of Wyoming in a Today show interview. New York Times editorial writer Frank Rich accused Gary Bauer of being an accomplice to the crime. "Once any group is successfully scapegoated as a subhuman threat to 'normal' values by a propaganda machine, emboldened thugs take over," he said. One beneficiary of such bombast was the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) stiffens penalties in cases of "violence based on the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability of the victim." And yet, "A 'hate crime' bill would not have prevented this crime," notes Janet Folger of Coral Ridge Ministries. "Murder is murder, regardless of who the victim is or the reason for which it is committed." Activists who lobbied for the Kennedy bill mixed rhetoric about hate crimes with attacks on groups that offer to help homosexuals abandon the lifestyle. The agenda of some gay-rights leaders seemed to be to silence anyone who says homosexuality is wrong. Conservative Christians reacted, saying that Mr. Shepard's death was being exploited in an attempt to gain federal endorsement for homosexuality. Meanwhile, the lead investigator in the case, Albany County sheriff's Lt. Rob DeBree, says he's confused about this controversy. "I wish somebody could give us a true definition of what they consider to be a hate crime,'' he said. And Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer maintains his opposition to such laws, noting that assaults of all kinds are serious business: "The difference is measured in motive, not in action." Sticks and stones break bones, and that's a problem regardless of the words used.

Chipping away Romer

Lawyers usually caution against reading too much into a Supreme Court decision not to consider a case. Nevertheless, the high court decision last week that left intact a federal appeals court ruling giving Cincinnati the right to refuse special rights for homosexuals is significant. Two years ago, the Supremes struck down a Colorado state constitutional amendment similar in effect to the Cincinnati ordinance they let stand. The Colorado measure prohibited state and local government agencies from declaring homosexuals a special class deserving special benefits in the law. Conservatives on the high court united behind a vigorous dissent in the Colorado case by Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia observed that the court's Romer vs. Evans decision "take[s] sides in this culture war ... not only by inventing a novel and extravagant constitutional doctrine ... but even by verbally disparaging as bigotry adherence to traditional attitudes." Is the court, by refusing to strike down the Cincinnati ordinance, defecting to the good guys in the cultural war? Absolutely not, said the three most liberal members of the court, who wrote separately to stress the point that the non-decision was not a retreat from Romer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that the Cincinnati ordinance did not run afoul of Romer-primarily because it was a city, not a state, initiative. But some gay-rights lawyers consider that a distinction without a difference. The Washington Post quoted a San Francisco deputy city attorney who opposed the 6th Circuit ruling: "This is a galling setback."

Who's the real victim?

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To hear convicted murderer Jeremy Strohmeyer tell it, everyone and everything else was responsible for his crime. He was drunk and drugged. His therapist was incompetent. A girlfriend had done him wrong. The Nevada casinos had made it too easy for him to get at his prey, 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson, whom he molested and strangled. At his sentencing last week, Mr. Strohmeyer said he was sorry and asked forgiveness, but said the court should feel his pain: "Can you imagine the fear, the panic, the sickness that rushes over you as you realize that somehow, you have done something to this little girl to cause her to be dying, yet you don't remember anything? This is what happened to me." The judge sentenced Mr. Strohmeyer to three life terms-which means he's up for parole in 20 years. But as a practical matter, said Judge Myron Leavitt, "that will never happen."


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