Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress Thursday to pass a new hate crimes law which would allow the federal government to prosecute cases of violence based on sexual orientation, gender or disability.
Holder, who testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, cited the recent killing of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The alleged assailant is a white supremacist.
"One has to look at the unfortunate history of our nation. There are groups that have been singled out, that have been targets of violence," the attorney general said. "We have to face and confront that reality."
Lawmakers at the hearing debated the possible impact of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill - named after a gay man killed in Wyoming in 1998 - would allow federal prosecution of violence committed because of the actual or perceived gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity of the victim.
For more than a decade, Democrats have sought to update the hate crimes law, which already makes it a federal crime to attack someone because of their race, creed or color.
Republicans at the hearing questioned whether the change would expand federal power unnecessarily into cases already being prosecuted by state and local officials. They also questioned why certain victims of violence should be singled out for particular types of protection.
"That's part of the problem. Some are protected groups and get special protection under this law," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "You argued your case. I've listened to it and I'm not persuaded."
According to FBI data, the number of hate crimes per year is relatively unchanged in the past 10 years. In 1998, the FBI reported 7,755 hate crime incidents, and in 2007 the bureau reported 7,624.
About half of all hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. The other two most frequent hate crimes are those motivated by religion or sexual orientation.
Holder said the statistics show hate crimes against Hispanics have increased four years in a row.
Sessions and a Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, both voiced concerns that the bill could be used to prosecute a church leader who speaks out against homosexuality, if a member of their congregation then assaults a gay person.
"This is a bill to hold people accountable for conduct, not for speech," Holder insisted.
Democrats on the panel were overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation.
"Hate crimes are really the worst. They are scarring forever on the individual," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., citing her own state's sometimes heated debate over immigration.
Some of that debate, she said, "has been part of hate, and people have been beaten up because they happen to be Hispanic, they happen to be on a street corner where somebody doesn't want them."
Earlier this month, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reported that in the past eight years, the number of hate groups in America has exploded - up 50 percent - from 602 in 2000 to 926 last year.