RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina congresswoman says she made a poor choice of words when she called the infamous murder of a gay Wyoming student a "hoax" to justify passing hate crimes bills.
Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx said during debate in the House that the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard shouldn't be used to justify a hate crimes bill because it wasn't a hate crime. Foxx said Shepard was killed during a robbery.
The bill approved Wednesday by the House would expand a federal hate crimes law to include acts motivated by sexual orientation.
"We know that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn't because he was gay," Foxx said during debate. "The bill was named for him, the hate-crimes bill was named for him, but it's really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."
Foxx later said her comments didn't convey what she meant to say.
"The term 'hoax' was a poor choice of words used in the discussion of the hate-crimes bill," Foxx said in a statement. "Mr. Shepard's death was nothing less than a tragedy, and those responsible for his death certainly deserved the punishment they received."
Foxx said in her statement that she relied on two news reports for her comments about robbery being a motive for the slaying.
"Referencing these media accounts may have been a mistake, but if so, it was a mistake based on what I believed were reliable accounts," she said.
The killing of the University of Wyoming student became a rallying point for the gay rights movement. Shepard was tied up, beaten and left for dead on a wooden fence.
The two men who killed him are serving life sentences in prison. Prosecutors' cases included evidence with elements of robbery, drugs and hate against gays, but the court only determined that the men were guilty of murder and not why they killed Shepard.
Gay rights supporters were critical of Foxx.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said Foxx's comments were "unreal, unbelievable."
Jim Neal, a one-time candidate for U.S. Senate from North Carolina and who is gay, said Foxx showed ignorance in her comments.
"I'm baffled that any kind of elected representative would make that kind of absurd and heartless comment about a young man whose life was taken away from him, and taken away because he was gay," Neal said.
The editor of a Charlotte-based publication for a gay audience said Foxx's comments showed hatred.
"He was killed because he was gay and she is making light of that fact," said Matt Comer.