Senate passes hate crimes bill that would extend protection to gays, lesbians

By Ben Pershing
Friday, October 23, 2009

The Senate cleared a historic hate crimes bill Thursday for President Obama's signature, approving new federal penalties for attacks on gay men and lesbians.

The legislation, which was attached to the conference report for the bill outlining the Pentagon's budget, marks the culmination of a years-long fight by civil rights groups to codify the expanded protections.

The measure would extend the current definition of federal hate crimes -- which covers attacks motivated by race, color, religion or national origin -- to include those based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also would make it a federal crime to attack U.S. military personnel because of their service.

The measure was approved, 68 to 29, with a majority of Republicans voting against it. The House passed the same bill Oct. 8, also with most Republicans opposed.

Gay rights groups praised the Senate's action.

"We look forward to President Obama signing it into law: our nation's first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence. We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped ensure that the hate crimes measure was added to the defense bill, said: "I am proud that Congress has come together to show that violence against members of any group because of who they are will not be tolerated in this country."

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named for Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998, and Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas in 1998. Shepard's family founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which helped lobby for the measure. Offered repeatedly by the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill had stalled previously in the Senate, and President George W. Bush vowed to veto it if it reached his desk.

But Obama said he plans to sign the measure, a key moment for a president who has been subject to criticism from some gay and lesbian activists who say he has not pushed hard enough for their agenda. Obama has vowed to do so, and said he will repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Social conservatives said the hate crimes bill would violate the First Amendment, and would be a step toward a larger gay rights agenda they oppose.

"Expanding hate crimes puts America in lock step with the stated agenda of homosexual activists who will turn next to the so-called Employment Non-Discrimination Act, followed by the repeal of the ban on homosexuality in the military and then the Defense of Marriage Act," the Family Research Council warned on its Web site.

Religious groups have also complained that the measure could criminalize the act of criticizing or preaching against homosexuality, but the bill's backers and the administration contend that is a misinterpretation of the legislation.

Separately, congressional Republicans objected to the process used to move the bill, saying that Democrats attached the hate crimes language to the defense authorization measure as a ploy to dare them to vote against it.

"It's a shame that this piece of legislation was added to a bill that's supposed to be about supporting our troops," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

The Defense measure outlines a $680 billion budget for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010, including $130 billion for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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