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Federal Official Says Time Is Right For Gay Rights

The climate for passing gay civil rights laws has never been better, but it could be a decade before another chance comes around, the highest-ranking openly gay official in the Obama administration said Friday.

"This is the best opportunity we will ever have as a community and shame on us if we don't succeed," said John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

A House vote Thursday put Congress on the verge of significantly expanding hate crimes law to make it a federal crime to assault people because of their sexual orientation. Later this year, Congress is expected to hold hearings on a measure prohibiting workplace discrimination _ including decisions about hiring, firing and wages _ based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The clock is against us," Berry said in a speech at the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates conference in Orlando. "If we lose this, it could be years if not a decade before this opportunity comes around."

He said a political climate like the current one _ with the president, Congress and public opinion open to passing gay rights legislation _ may not come again for a long time.

Berry oversees the agency that manages the federal government's workplace. His speech at the Orlando conference came a day before President Barack Obama was set to address the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group.

Obama has taken a cautious approach to following through with campaign promises to end a ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military and pushing tough nondiscrimination policies. But Berry said Obama was "clear in his support for our community and his commitment to full equality."