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House Gives Final Approval To Hate Crimes Bill

by Kris Alingod

Washington, D.C. (AHN) - The House on Thursday gave its final approval to legislation expanding federal hate crimes to include attacks on gays and transgenders. LGBT advocates hailed the vote as a long-awaited victory, but the GOP accused Democrats of "valuing some lives more than others," and of "immorality" for tacking the measure to the 2010 Defense budget.

Attached to the bill is a measure named after two murder victims: Matthew Shepard (left), a gay Wyoming university student who died in 1998 after being tortured, and James Byrd, Jr., a black man who was dragged to death by white supremacists the same year as Shepard's murder. (Image: familyequality.org) The National Defense Authorization Act, or H.R. 2647, passed by a vote of 281-46. Forty-four Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill.

Attached to it is a measure named after two murder victims: Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming university student who died in 1998 after being tortured, and James Byrd, Jr., a black man who was dragged to death by white supremacists the same year as Shepard's murder.

The attached measure expands federal hate crimes to include attacks based on a person's actual or perceived gender, gender identity or disability or sexual orientation. The original 1969 law gives the federal government the authority to pursue criminal investigations for crimes committed because of a person's race, color, religion or national origin, and only while the victim is engaging in federally-protected activity.

Democrats and gay advocates had been pushing for expanding the law since 2007, but had failed to do so with a Republican in the White House.

This year, they had attempted to do so but came up short in the Senate in April, after the House voted 249-175 to pass the stand-alone hate-crimes bill. They later incorporated the measure in the 2010 defense budget, which now only needs the final approval of the Senate before President Barack Obama signs it into law.

The House vote comes before LGBT groups gather in D.C. on Sunday for a National Equality March, and before the President keynotes the annual dinner on Saturday of the nation's largest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign.

"We are closer than ever before to protecting Americans from hate violence thanks to today's action by the House," HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. "The day is within sight when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will benefit from updating our nation's hate crimes laws and giving local law enforcement the tools they need to combat hate violence."

But House Minority Leadership John Boehner (R-OH) called the bill "thought crimes' legislation because it "places a higher value on some lives than others."

"Democrats have done a great disservice to the brave men and women of our Armed Forces today by using them as leverage to pass radical social policy," Boehner added.

"Our military deserves the resources provided in this legislation," Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) also said. "Our troops deserve better than to be treated as pack mules to carry the load for a despicable and unconstitutional bill that penalizes thought and places a premium on some classes of individuals over others."

"No American should be more protected from violent crime than another," Price added. "All violent crimes demonstrate hate and all should be fully prosecuted. Justice should be blind, but Democrats have rejected the credo of our Founders that all people are created equal."

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the bill "secur[es] our fundamental right to feel safe in our communities."

"This nation was founded on the promise of pluralism, a commitment to equality and opportunity, and the belief that 'liberty and justice for all' is not simply an empty pledge - it rests at the core of our identity as a people," Pelosi added. "No American should ever have to suffer persecution or violence because of who they are, how they look, or what they believe... We are standing with the families of Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr., and countless other victims of hate crimes."

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