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House vote expands hate crimes protections to gays and lesbians

Friday, October 9, 2009
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The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to expand the definition of violent federal hate crimes to include those committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation, a step that would extend new protections to gay, lesbian,and transgender people, reports the New York Times.

Democrats hailed the vote of 281 to 146, which brought the measure to the brink of becoming law, as the culmination of a long push to curb violent expressions of bias like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student.

Mattew ShepardUnder current federal law, hate crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction are defined as those motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin.

The new measure would broaden the definition to include those committed because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It was approved by the House right before a weekend when gay rights will be a focus in Washington, with a march to the Capitol and a speech by President Obama to the Human Rights Campaign.

Republicans criticized the legislation, saying violent attacks were already illegal regardless of motive, and were furious that the measure was attached to an essential $681 billion military policy bill, accusing Democrats of legislative blackmail.

The military bill has yet to be approved by the Senate, but the hate crimes provision has solid support there. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the overall bill outweighed his own objections to including the hate crimes measure.

Similar hate crime provisions have passed the House and the Senate in previous years but have never been able to clear their final hurdles. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that it was fitting that Congress was acting now, since next Monday is the 11th anniversary of the attack on Shepard.

Full story at The New York Times.

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