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Religious Leaders Decry Wyoming Man’s Slaying

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forty Los Angeles-area religious leaders gathered Wednesday to lament the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, and to urge Congress to enact a hate crime law to protect gays and lesbians.

“How in the name of God can we stop this?” implored Bishop Frederick Borsch, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. “What in the name of God brings in such brutality?”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 16, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 16, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 3 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Hate crime law--In an article Wednesday on federal hate crime law, The Times mischaracterized current and proposed laws on hate crimes. Current law designates as hate crimes against gays only those that involve violation of other federal laws. The proposed legislation would require the government to establish a perpetrator’s motive and would expand crimes covered to include those that cause death or bodily injury “because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability” of the victim.

Authorities believe two college dropouts were motivated to beat Shepard, 21, because he was gay.

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“We weep because a life full of hope and promise was so cruelly ended,” Borsch said in front of the downtown federal courthouse. “His skull fractured, his body burned and beaten, and left here, in the United States, in 30-degree weather tied to a fence, his arms extended, all too reminiscent of a crucifixion. Who among us does not weep?”

Borsch said Wednesday that Shepard was an Episcopalian and an active member of his campus Canterbury Club, a student ministry.

Father Peter Luizzi, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s personal representative to gay and lesbian Catholics, fervently condemned Shepard’s slaying and exhorted people of all faiths to view such homicides not with indifference but as monstrous crimes.

“No doubt such a growing irreverence for life has led Pope John Paul II to speak of a “culture of death,” Luizzi said. “How ironic that Matthew Shepard was cut down during Respect Life month in the Catholic Church in the U.S.,” Luizzi said.

“One cannot claim to be pro-life by merely opposing abortion,” he continued. “Anyone who respects life will defend human life and dignity whenever and wherever it is threatened, from womb to the tomb, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, ability or any other reality that would render human beings different from each other.”

Shepard died Monday, five days after he was rescued from a Wyoming ranch where he was left tied to a fence for 18 hours. The student was beaten and pistol-whipped. He was found suspended on a fence by a passerby who at first thought he was a scarecrow.

Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, 22, have been charged with first-degree murder. They could face the death penalty if convicted of killing Shepard.

Shepard’s slaying became an instant symbol of violence against gays and lesbians and was mourned across the country. After learning about his death, President Clinton urged Congress to pass the so-called Federal Hate Crimes Protection Act, which would make crimes based on sex, disability and sexual orientation federal offenses.

Wyoming is one of 10 states without a hate crime law, but the state’s governor has asked its Legislature to consider such a bill in January.

Most gay-bashing crimes in Los Angeles County are prosecuted by the district attorney’s office, said Michael Gennaco, the assistant U.S. attorney who heads the federal hate crimes unit.

To prosecute an incident as a federal hate crime, authorities must prove not only that it was racially motivated, but that it happened in a public place. Cases in which alleged crimes occur in private cannot be federally prosecuted, which would change if the bill that Clinton has asked for is passed, Gennaco said.

The proposed measure would extend the reach of illegal activity considered to be hate crimes.

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, added his voice Wednesday in support of a federal hate crime law.

“We need to show that we as a nation will not tolerate such evilness,” Goldmark said.

Wednesday night, more than 500 people attended a candlelight vigil and march at West Hollywood’s Metropolitan Community Church to mourn Shepard’s death. A number of speakers, including representatives from various religious denominations, addressed the crowd.

“We wanted to offer a place for our community to grieve,” said Lo Sprague, a member of the church’s board of directors.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Carla Arranaga, who also addressed the crowd, said that last year 328 people in Los Angeles County were prosecuted for hate crimes. The second-largest group of victims, she said, were gays and lesbians.

“Hate crimes against gays and lesbians don’t occur in a vacuum,” she said. “And they don’t occur just in places like Laramie, Wyoming.”

Steve Johnson of Los Angeles said he decided to attend the vigil to express his horror and anger about the killing.

“I could really empathize with Matthew Shepard,” he said, “and I felt that the least I could do was show up tonight.”

A service in memory of Shepard will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul.

Times staff writer Miles Corwin contributed to this story


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