The House of Representatives is expected to vote today on expanding federal hate crimes legislation to include disability, gender and sexual orientation.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HR1913) is also known as the Matthew Shepard Act. Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was killed in 1998 by two men he met in a gay bar. He was beaten and left to die shackled to a post along a rural road.

The legislation would allow the Attorney General to assist cities and states in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.

Openly gay Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank sponsored the bill in the House, while Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy is backing the Senate version.

Passage in the House, where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, appears all but certain. But Democrats hold a narrower majority in the Senate, where passage may hinge on the support of moderate Republicans.

Yesterday, President Obama issued a statement urging lawmakers to pass the measure.

“I urge members on both sides of the aisle to act on this important civil rights issue by passing this legislation to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance – legislation that will enhance civil rights protections while also protecting our freedoms of speech and association,” Obama said.

Obama's backing of the measure runs counter to that of President Bush who had threatened to veto the legislation should lawmakers approve it.

Opponents of the bill argue that the measure would have a chilling effect on free speech and restrict religious liberties, despite its included First Amendment protections.

During a Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, Republican members attempted to amend the bill to extend its provisions to senior citizens, veterans and even pregnant women.

Iowa Representative Steve King asked: “Why are we valuing sexuality as more important than veteran status or old age, for instance?”

“Their agenda is to shut down preaching of faith from the pulpit,” King told One News Now. “Their agenda is to force approval of the homosexual agenda. And destroy marriage nationally is the follow-up piece of this.”

Passage of the federal hate crimes law is a priority for groups that advocate for gay and lesbian rights.