Last week, as an amendment to the Department of Defense fiscal authorization bill to cover 2010 expenses, the U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

This week, the Senate passed an amendment to the Act – and if this becomes law, it will allow capital punishment for those found guilty of hate crimes if certain circumstances are met.

Right now, this Death Penalty Amendment to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act can be killed: in September, the joint House-Senate has to reconcile the two versions of the legislation (House version, Senate version) before it comes to a full Congressional vote. And, assuming it stays put, it still will be a bill awaiting Presidential approval before it becomes law.

Still, this is a scary thing to have happened, and it shows the extent to which the death penalty is considered a worthwhile form of punishment by many in this country today.

What is the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act? If enacted, it will allow the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability – just as the feds are already allowed to do when faced with hate crimes provoked by the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

Does the name “Matthew Shepard” sound familiar? It should. This was a notorious case out of Wyoming where a young man was tortured and murdered – targeted because he was gay. The story was made into a TV movie starring Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing.

By the way, neither defendant who was tried and convicted for the murder of Matthew Shepard was sentenced to death. Just something to think about.