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. The legislation would bring major changes to law enacted in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
"No American should ever have to suffer persecution or violence because of who they are, how they look or what they believe," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noting that hate crimes legislation has been on her agenda since she first entered Congress more than two decades ago.
She added that it's been 11 years since the gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, whose name was attached to the legislation, was murdered.
Civil rights groups and their Democratic allies have come close to expanding the hate crimes bill several times in the past decade, but have always fallen short because of lack of House-Senate coordination or opposition from former President George W. Bush.
But this time it appears they may succeed. The bill was attached to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill that the Senate could approve as early as next week. President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, has promised to sign it into law. The late Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was a longtime advocate of the hate crimes legislation.
The House vote on the defense bill was 281-146. Unlike usual defense bill votes, most of those in opposition 131 out of the 146 were Republicans objecting strenuously to inclusion of what they referred to as "thought crimes" legislation in a defense bill.
"The inclusion of 'thought crimes' legislation in what is otherwise a bipartisan bill for troop funding is an absolute disgrace," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, head of the GOP conservative caucus.
GOP opponents were not assuaged by late changes in the bill to strengthen protections for religious speech and association critics argued that pastors expressing beliefs about homosexuality could be prosecuted if their sermons were connected to later acts of violence against gays.
Supporters countered that prosecution could occur only when bodily injury is involved, and no minister or protester could be targeted for expressing opposition to homosexuality.
The bill also creates a new federal crime to penalize attacks against U.S. service members on account of their service.
Hate crimes legislation enacted after King's assassination defined hate crimes as those carried out on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It also limits the scope of activities that would trigger federal involvement.
The proposed expansion would include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It eases restrictions on federally protected activities.
"The day is within sight when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will benefit from updating our nation's hate crimes laws and giving local law enforcement the tools they need to combat hate violence," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group.
Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change the current situation where investigations and prosecutions are carried out by state and local officials.
But it would provide federal grants to help with the prosecuting of 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 is unwilling or unable to follow through on a purported hate crime.
While Republicans voted against the defense bill because of the hate crimes addition, openly gay Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado said he would vote for it despite his opposition to U.S. military presence in Iraq. The reason hate crimes are so odious, he said, "is that they are not just crimes against individuals, they are crimes against entire communities and create environments of fear in entire communities."
Tom McClusky, vice president of the conservative Family Research Council's legislative arm said the next step likely would be contesting the legislation in court. "The religious protections are pretty flimsy," he said. He contended that Democrats were trying to move their "homosexual agenda" this year because it would prove unpopular with voters next year.
The FBI says there are some 8,000 hate crimes reported around the country in a year. More than half of those are motivated by racial bias. Next most frequent are crimes based on religious bias at around 18 percent and sexual orientation at 16 percent.