President Obama signed into law the
Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Prevention Act during a
White House signing ceremony on Wednesday.
The legislation expands the definition
of federal hate crimes to include sexual orientation and gender
“After more than a decade of
opposition we passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help
protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who
they love, how they pray or who they are,” Obama said before
signing the bill.
Democrats stowed away the bill inside
the must-pass fiscal year 2010 defense reauthorization bill, a move
that rankled some Republicans.
As senators debated the bill last
Thursday, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint called the bill
“It suggests that violence against
certain kinds of victims is worse, more in need of federal
intervention and swift justice,” he said. He added that the bill
decides which thoughts are criminal and which are not.
Opponents argue that the bill will have
a chilling effect on free speech and restrict religious liberties,
despite its included First Amendment protections.
International civil rights groups
hailed passage of the bill, saying it puts the U.S. at the forefront
of civil rights.
“The adoption and enforcement of this
bill sets the stage for further comprehensive reforms at home and
adds momentum to U.S. efforts to continue its leadership in combating
the scourge of hate crimes abroad,” Paul LeGendre, director of
Rights First's Fight Discrimination Program, said in a statement.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard,
a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in
1998 by two men he met in a gay bar, and James Byrd Jr., a black man
dragged to death behind a pickup truck a year earlier in Texas.
Shepard was beaten and left to die shackled to a post along a rural
road near Laramie. Judy Shepard devoted herself to passage of the
bill named after her son.
The bill defines hate crimes as those
motivated by prejudice against race, color, religion, national
origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
It allows the Attorney General to assist cities and sates in the
investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
House lawmakers approved a similar bill
in 2007, but it sank in the Senate under the weight of a veto threat
from President George Bush. President Obama had urged lawmakers to
approve the measure.