The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was included as part of a $680 billion defense spending authorization act, which President Obama signed at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
The measure makes it a crime to assault people based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Federal hate crimes protections already cover race, ethnicity and religion.
Democratic supporters attached the measure to the essential defense policy bill over the objections of some in the GOP.
The law is named for two well-known victims of hate crimes: Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was abducted and beaten to death in 1998 in Wyoming; and James Byrd, a black man who was killed by white supremacists in Texas the same year. Shepard's mother, Judy, was among those at the White House bill signing ceremony Wednesday.
More than 77,000 hate-crime incidents were reported nationwide by the FBI between 1998 and 2007.
In 2007, the FBI reported 9,535 people were victims of hate crimes. Race was the motivating factor in 52 percent of the cases, while sexual orientation was the factor for 15.9 percent.
The law is considered a victory for supporters of gay rights, who have fought for this particular legislation since it was first introduced before Congress in 2001. In the years since, the bill's supporters have seen only halting progress on the measure.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was the first to introduce a bill extending hate crime protections for sexual orientation with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998.
“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we've passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray, or who they are,” President Obama said before he signed the bill.
Conservatives have opposed hate crimes legislation over concerns that such measures criminalize a motivation and do not treat violent crimes equally. They also havevoicedconcernsthat religious leaders who preach against homosexuality could be targeted for prosecution.
“The idea that we’re going to pass a law that’s going to add further charges to someone based on what they may have been thinking, I think is wrong,” said House Minority leader John Boehner of Ohio.
The new law will also provide money for the Justice Department to prosecute hate crimes in states that do not have their own hate crimes protections. It is unclear what result the law will have on the number of hate crime prosecutions.
"Are there going to be a huge number of prosecutions by the federal government, by the Justice Department, under this statute? No," David Stacy, a lobbyist on gay issues for the Human Rights Campaign, told NPR.
Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, a newspaper for the gay community based in Washington, D.C., had cautious praise for the bill.
“For the purposes of this one federal law, we are now equal. There are many other federal laws in which we are not equal. It’s a long way to go, it’s a positive step and now on bigger and better things,” Naff said in an interview.
Naff questioned the legislative approach for passing the bill: attaching it to a popular $681 billion defense spending bill. He said he would have preferred if the act had passed on its own merits instead of being attached to an unrelated piece of legislation.
The act passed the House by a 281-146 vote and a68-29 vote in the Senate.
Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he was unhappy that the law would give the federal government more power to prosecute crimes that are dealt with on a state level.
“All these crimes are illegal on state level,” Darling said. “The law makes a distinction between violent crimes where there shouldn’t be one.”
Darling also took issue with the decision to tack the bill onto a massive defense spending act.
President Obama, who won the support of 70 percent of gay voters during the 2008 election, has come under fire from some in the gay rights movement for not acting on his promises to help their community.
He made a campaign promise to reverse the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbian service members, but changes to the policy have yet to move forward.
Naff said he thinks the gay rights community viewed the Matthew Shepard act as a first step toward President Obama and a Democratic Congress addressing gay rights issues.
“To a lot of people this was the easier sell. Now that that’s done, we can go onto other things that have more of an impact on peoples lives, employment non-discrimination being chief among them,” Naff said, referring to the fact that federal law does not protect gay and lesbian workers against discrimination in the workplace.
“Not everyone is a victim of a hate crime. Not everyone wants to get married. But everyone needs to have a job," Naff said. "Getting that bill through, in my opinion, should become priority number one for the movement now."
---- By Quinn Bowman, Online NewsHour