Matthew Shepard’s Parents Assail Trump Administration on Transgender Rights

WASHINGTON — The parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student whose murder led to the passage of a groundbreaking federal law that expanded the definition of violent federal hate crimes, harshly criticized the Trump administration’s record on civil rights in a letter read aloud in their absence during a Justice Department ceremony on Wednesday.

Judy and Dennis Shepard, whose son was beaten to death in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo., had been invited to speak at a Justice Department ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the law named for him and for James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck earlier that year in Texas.

Instead, the Shepards, who said they were unable to attend the ceremony because of travel issues, singled out Attorney General William P. Barr for what they see as the Trump administration’s failure to protect the rights of transgender people. They alluded to cases recently argued before the Supreme Court about gay and transgender people who were fired from their jobs — the Trump administration filed briefs supporting the employers in both cases.

“We find it interesting and hypocritical that he 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,” the Shepards said of Mr. Barr in their letter, which was read aloud by Cynthia M. Deitle, the programs and operations director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Mr. Barr did not attend the event.

“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,” the Shepards added. “Either you believe in equality for all or you don’t. We do not honor our son by kowtowing to hypocrisy.”

Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the department’s Civil Rights division, was also on stage and sat stoically behind Ms. Deitle as she spoke. When she finished reading the letter, the audience, which included Justice Department employees, gave her a standing ovation.

A Justice Department news release sent to reporters after the event made no mention of the Shepards’ criticisms. In the statement, Mr. Barr said that “hate crimes are especially reprehensible because of the toll they take on families, communities, and our nation as a whole.”

In his opening remarks, Mr. Dreiband praised the Obama-era hate crimes prevention law, calling it an important weapon for law enforcement officials. He said that during the Trump administration, more than 70 defendants have been charged with crimes motivated by hate.

The arguments before the Supreme Court this month concerned whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status, which is legal in many places in the country.

If the court decides that Title VII protections apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, such a decision would essentially extend basic civil rights protections to those groups.

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, disputed the Shepards’ characterization of its position on employment rights for transgender people. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco, who represented the Trump administration’s position on the issue, argued that Congress, not the courts, should change the law, she noted.

But Mr. Francisco also said that while Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, it “does not bar discrimination because of transgender status” because the definition of sex in the law refers only to “unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace.”

The Shepards said in their letter that a history of prohibitions that discriminate against gay people — including on marriage, military service, adoption and employment without fear of being fired for their sexual orientation — essentially paved the way for the type of violence that the Shepard-Byrd act is meant to prosecute.

“Such blatant discrimination encourages bullying, vandalism and other acts of violence, encouraging close-minded people to push harder against those they consider ‘different’ because they don’t fit their preconceived notions of ‘same,’” the Shepards wrote.

“Our son, Matt, was the result of that discrimination and violence when he was beaten brutally and left to die,” they wrote.

Two men were convicted in Mr. Shepard’s killing and are each serving two consecutive life sentences without parole.

The Shepards also said that they considered many of the career lawyers in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to be friends and called them “guardians against hate, discrimination, and bias-motivated violence.”

“For those of you who are career employees of the Department of Justice and truly believe in protecting all Americans from injustice, who believe in equal rights and representation for all Americans, who fight daily to protect the freedoms of all Americans, we thank you from the bottoms of our hearts,” they wrote.

“We never doubted your commitment or resolve to honor our son’s memory and legacy by enforcing this law,” they added.

As for Mr. Barr, they noted that he vowed this summer in a speech to crack down on hate crimes. But, the couple said, the department’s position on civil rights protections for gay and transgender people undermined his pledge.

“He must lead and demonstrate his refusal to accept hate in all its manifestations,” they wrote. “He must demonstrate courage, even if it means disagreeing with the administration. So far, he has done none of these deeds.”

“Mr. Barr,” they said, “you cannot have it both ways.”