Washington: In a move welcomed by gays and lesbians, the US Senate has passed groundbreaking legislation making an assault on an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity a federal crime.
The measure expanding federal hate crimes law was added to a USD 680 billion defence authorisation bill. It now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama who has pledged to sign the measure. President George W Bush had threatened to veto a similar measure.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr, an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.
Several religious groups have expressed concern that a hate-crime law could be used to criminalise conservative speech relating to subjects such as abortion or homosexuality. Attorney General Eric Holder has asserted that any federal hate-crimes law would be used only to prosecute violent acts based on bias, as opposed to the prosecution of speech based on controversial racial or religious beliefs.
Holder called Thursday`s 68-29 Senate vote to approve the defence spending bill that included the hate crimes measure "a milestone in helping protect Americans from the most heinous bias-motivated violence."
This month Obama told the Human Rights Campaign, the country`s largest gay rights group, that the nation still needs to make significant changes to ensure equal rights for gays and lesbians.
"Despite the progress we`ve made, there are still laws to change and hearts to open," he said during his address at the dinner for the Human Rights Campaign. "This fight continues now, and I`m here with the simple message:
"I`m here with you in that fight."
Among other things, Obama has called for the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, the "don`t ask, don`t tell" policy.
He also has urged Congress to pass laws to recognize same-sex marriages and extend family benefits now available to heterosexual federal employees to gay and lesbian federal workers.
More than 77,000 hate-crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or "nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.
The FBI, Holder added, reported 7,624 hate-crime incidents in 2007, the most current year with complete data.