The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday in favor of including disability, gender and sexual orientation to the list of hate crime protections over the objections of conservatives.

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 near Laramie.

Eighteen Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in approving the legislation in a 249 to 175 vote. Seventeen Democrats voted against the measure.

The bill defines hate crimes as those motivated by prejudice against race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It would allow the Attorney General to assist cities and states in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. Legislators passed a similar bill in 2007, but the bill sank under the weight of a veto threat from President George W. Bush.

Tuesday, President Barack 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.

The House version of the bill was sponsored by openly gay Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank. The bill now heads to the Senate, where Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy has sponsored the measure.

The bill's outcome in the Senate, where passage depends on support from moderate Republicans, remains uncertain.

Gay rights groups began lobbying for the legislation in 2003. According to, a website that tracks political contributions, proponents gave nearly $4 million to House members that approved the bill.

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.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida and co-sponsor, questioned those motivations.

“I wonder if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were talking about hate crimes based on race or religion,” she said, referring to Republican opponents. “It seems to me it is the category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the fact that we have hate crimes laws at all.”

On the House floor, Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, denied Matthew Shepard died from a hate crime, calling his martyrdom a hoax.

“The bill was named after a very unfortunate incident that happened, where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of robbery. It wasn't because he was gay. The bill was named for him, the hate crimes bill was named for him, but it's … really a hoax, that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate groups, the number of active hate groups in the United States has soared by 54% since 2000. The group reported 926 active hate groups in 2008.