WASHINGTON — People attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender would receive federal protections under a Senate-approved measure that significantly expands the reach of hate crimes law.
The Senate bill also would make it easier for federal prosecutors to step in when state or local authorities are unable or unwilling to pursue hate crimes.
"The Senate made a strong statement this evening that hate crimes have no place in America," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the chamber voted Thursday to attach the legislation as an amendment to a $680 billion defense spending bill expected to be completed next week.
The House in April approved a similar bill and President Barack Obama has urged Congress to send him hate crimes legislation, presenting the best scenario for the measure to become law since Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., first introduced it more than a decade ago.
Kennedy, being treated for cancer and unable to attend the vote, said in a statement that the bill "closes the flagrant loopholes that for too long have prevented effective prosecution of these shocking crimes that terrorize entire groups of communities across America."
Republicans will have the opportunity to propose several more changes to the hate crimes bill on Monday, but that will not change its status as part of the must-pass defense bill.
Passage of the bill would effect the most significant extension of hate crimes law since Congress first acted in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1968 law defines hate crimes as those carried out on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It also limits federal involvement to when the victim is engaged in a narrow range of activities, including attending a public school, serving as a juror or participating in an event administered by a state or local government.
The proposed legislation expands federal hate crimes to include those perpetrated against people because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also removes restrictions on federally protected activities.
"There is no room in our society for these acts of prejudice," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. "Hate crimes fragment and isolate our communities. They tear at our collective spirit."
Some 45 states have hate crime statutes, and investigations and prosecutions would remain mainly in state and local hands. But the bill provides federal grants to help state and local officials with the costs of prosecuting hate crimes and funds programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles. The federal government can step in after the Justice Department certifies that a state does not have jurisdiction or is unable to carry out justice.
Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, said it "will provide police and sheriff's departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence."
The Senate approved the measure by voice vote after a 63-28 procedural vote was needed to allow its consideration as part of the defense bill. The 28 no votes were all Republicans. Five Republicans voted for it, giving supporters the 60 votes they needed.
Opponents of the bill, including conservative religious groups, argued that it infringes on states' rights and could intimidate free speech.
"The bill could potentially imperil the free speech rights of Christians who choose to speak out against homosexuality – which could even be extended to preaching against it," The Christian Coalition of America said in a statement.
Supporters countered that prosecutions under the bill can occur only when bodily injury is involved, and no minister or protester could be targeted for expressing opposition to homosexuality, even if their statements are followed by another person committing a violent action.
To emphasize the point, the Senate passed provisions restating that the bill does not prohibit constitutionally protected speech and that free speech is guaranteed unless it is intended to plan or prepare for an act of violence.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was murdered in 1998.
The FBI receives reports of nearly 8,000 hate crimes each year. Of those, about 15 percent are linked to sexual orientation, which ranks third after those involving race and religion.
The Senate hate crimes bill is S. 909.
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