In a move welcomed by gays and lesbians, the US Senate has passed groundbreaking legislation making an assault on an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity a federal crime.
The measure expanding federal hate crimes law was added to a $680 billion defence authorization bill. It now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama who has pledged to sign the measure. President George W. Bush had threatened to veto a similar measure.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.
Several religious groups have expressed concern that a hate-crime law could be used to criminalise conservative speech relating to subjects such as abortion or homosexuality. Attorney General Eric Holder has asserted that any federal hate-crimes law would be used only to prosecute violent acts based on bias, as opposed to the prosecution of speech based on controversial racial or religious beliefs.
Holder called Thursday’s 68-29 Senate vote to approve the defence spending bill that included the hate crimes measure “a milestone in helping protect Americans from the most heinous bias-motivated violence.”
This month Obama told the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights group, that the nation still needs to make significant changes to ensure equal rights for gays and lesbians.
“Despite the progress we’ve made, there are still laws to change and hearts to open,” he said during his address at the dinner for the Human Rights Campaign. “This fight continues now, and I’m here with the simple message:
“I’m here with you in that fight.”
Among other things, Obama has called for the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
He also has urged Congress to pass laws to recognize same-sex marriages and extend family benefits now available to heterosexual federal employees to gay and lesbian federal workers.
More than 77,000 hate-crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.
The FBI, Holder added, reported 7,624 hate-crime incidents in 2007, the most current year with complete data. All crime is hateful, but some more hate-specific than others. The law is welcome and overdue.