When I found out that the law had been signed, I tweeted about how proud I was of our President and our country. Several folks replied that they don't understand why it can be more of a crime to beat one person to death than another person. Isn't every violent crime a hate crime?
(For those that aren't easily offended, there's a fantastic South Park episode about this very question.)
I share their sentiment and I agree that any violent crime is hateful. But I think the importance of the Shepard bill is much greater than the mandate of tougher sentences for physical attacks on certain people. The symbolic importance of this bill is somewhat like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts strengthened protections of rights that were in theory already guaranteed by the Constitution, but in practice they were systematically denied to people based on skin color. The importance of these bills was what they said about where we as a country were and how we were determined to do better in living up to the values we profess.
I believe the Shepard bill fulfills a similar symbolic purpose. As a country we are taking a stand and saying that violent attacks against anyone for any reason is never acceptable.
I am especially happy to see this bill passed because it was stalled for so long in Congress, with much of the opposition to it taking the form of half truths and outright lies clothed in religious language (this is another similarity to the aforementioned bills).
As a person of faith I respect the views of my brothers and sisters who believe that differing sexual orientations are a sin, even though I do not share this view. But I think most of us (fringe groups aside) can agree that violence against any group for any reason is never acceptable.
I am hopeful that the passage of the Shepard bill signals a positive shift toward a more peaceful and tolerant society.