WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The parents of slain gay Wyoming man Matthew Shepard blasted U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday for failing to stand up for LGBT civil rights in a statement read at a Justice Department ceremony marking the 10-year anniversary of a hate crime law bearing their son’s name.
Judy and Dennis Shepard did not attend, but Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI agent and now an executive with the Matthew Shepard Foundation LGBT rights organization, read a scathing letter they wrote, drawing applause from many in attendance at the event commemorating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“We find it interesting and hypocritical that he (Barr) would invite us to this event commemorating a hate crime law named after our son and Mr. Byrd, while, at the same time, asking the Supreme Court to allow the legalized firing of transgender employees,” Deitle said, reading from the letter.
Barr’s Justice Department argued at the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 8 on behalf of President Donald Trump’s administration that a landmark decades-old federal anti-discrimination law that bars sex discrimination in the workplace does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.
Barr was not in attendance, but Deitle made the remarks as Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, sat nearby on the same stage.
“Mr. Barr, you cannot have it both ways. If you believe that employers should have the right to terminate transgender employees, just because they are transgender, then you believe they are lesser than and not worthy of protection. If so, you need not invite us to future events at the Department of Justice,” Deitle said.
The remarks drew applause and a standing ovation from a significant portion of the audience. Deitle said she was standing in for the Shepards because they were traveling.
The Shepards in their letter also said Barr has failed to stand up to discriminatory actions supported by the Trump administration, and urged him to “take a stand as a member of this administration to disavow and condemn any person who fuels the fires of hate with their words and actions.”
The Trump administration also has supported the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, restricted transgender service members in the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.
The event got off to a routine start, with Dreiband praising the law signed by Republican Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.
“Prosecuting hate crimes remains a top priority here at the Department of Justice,” Dreiband said, noting that 100 defendants in about 50 cases have been prosecuted under the law since its passage.
A Justice Department spokeswoman disputed the Shepards’ characterization of the administration’s position in the Supreme Court matter.
Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming in 1998 when was tied to a fence, pistol-whipped and left unconscious for hours in an anti-gay crime. He died a few days later at age 21. That same year, James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man, was murdered by white supremacists in a high-profile racially motivated crime in Texas.
The law named after them criminalized violence committed on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, national origin or disability, among other provisions.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham