Gay rights groups pounced on a U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx Wednesday after she called the case behind a hate crimes bill "a hoax."
Foxx's comments came on the House floor during debate over the so-called Matthew Shepard bill, named for a 21-year-old gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Supporters say he was the victim of a hate crime, Jim Morrill reports.
The bill would expand a federal hate crimes law to include acts motivated by sexual orientation.
"The Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed," said the Banner Elk Republican. "But we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. The bill was named for him … but it's really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."
In a statement, Foxx later called her comments "a poor choice of words."
More after the jump.
But the bill’s supporters wasted no time in criticizing her.
"It is no longer acceptable in this day and age to just come right out and say you don’t like gay people," said Brad Luna of the Human Rights Campaign. "Extremist opponents of equality must resort to these types of malicious and twisted lies. Rep. Foxx should be ashamed of herself."
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia told a reporter called Foxx's comments "unreal, unbelievable."
"The law enforcement people and almost every reasonable person I know believes he was murdered because he was gay," he said.
Two men were convicted of killing Shepard after meeting him in a Laramie bar. Some witnesses testified that Shepard was targeted because he was gay. One of the men convicted tried to use the so-called "gay panic" defense, saying he acted uncontrollably after a homosexual advance.
Some news reports later speculated that Shepard's murder was prompted more by the perpetrators' drug use than by any anti-gay sentiment. Though the Laramie police chief has said he doesn't buy that, Foxx said such reports prompted her remarks.
"Referencing these media accounts may have been a mistake," she said in her statement. "But if so, it was a mistake based on what I believed were reliable accounts… Mr. Shepard's death was nothing less than a tragedy and those responsible … deserved the punishment they received."
But Matt Comer, an organizer with Charlotte Rainbow Action Network for Equality, said the facts of the case are generally accepted.
"Now she is trying to go back rewrite history, dishonor the life of Matthew Shepard," he said. "We cannot forget about the hate that is involved in crimes like this."