In a landmark decision coming on the tail of decades of fierce debate, Congress passed a bill to widen federal protection against hate crimes to those victimized because of their sex or sexual orientation. President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act on Wednesday.
Though also encountering great antagonism, the decision was passed by a vote of 281 to 156 in the House vote earlier this month, and then by a 68 to 29 vote in the Senate last Thursday, with a gay rights march on the Capitol attended by more than 200,000 people from all over the country and a speech by Obama to the Human Rights Campaign occurring in between. It will now go to Obama, who has said he supports the legislation, for signature.
Republicans cited the illegality of violent attacks, regardless of motive, as reason not to pass what they considered superfluous legislation. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) called the new law "Orwellian" and a step toward "thought crime," as prosecution for attack would require ascribing a motive to the attacker.
The Republican right has also criticized the bill, intended to reduce violence against some of the more vulnerable groups in society, as "radical social policy."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) pointed out the more than 77,000 reports of hate crimes that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has received between 1998 through 2007, and said that crime based on sexual orientation was on the rise.
Earlier hate crimes provisions only covered attacks motivated by a victim's race, color, religion or natural origin, though the rise of identity politics and killings such as that of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student murdered in 1998, have increased the push for more comprehensive legislation.
The hate crimes addition, passed as part of a $68 billion military spending bill, will also allocate $5 million a year to the Justice Department to assist local communities in investigating hate crimes.
However, for many this is not far enough. Some states, with Maryland being the most recent, have extended the legislation to cover attacks against homeless people.
State Sen. Alex Mooney (R-Maryland), known for his socially conservative views, said, "since we have hate crimes as part of law, it only makes sense to look at truly vulnerable groups to include, not just to include groups that have clout, you know, in one of the political parties ... And I think homeless people deserve the same protections as other human beings."