WASHINGTON – A long-debated bill to strengthen the federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gay people was approved by the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday, the first major expansion of the law in more than 40 years.
The measure, which is expected to go before the Senate within days, had faced a veto threat from President George W. Bush but has President Barack Obama’s support.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the president looked forward to signing the bill.
“As the president said back in April, the hate-crimes bill takes on an important civil rights issue to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association,” he said.
“It’s a very exciting day for us here in the Capitol,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noting that she has pushed for strengthening the law since her arrival in Congress 22 years ago.
“What makes these crimes so bad is they are not just crimes against individuals; they are crimes against entire communities,” Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who is openly gay, said during the debate.
Passage of the measure, however, drew objections from a number of Republicans and other opponents, who have argued that existing laws cover hate crimes.
“Violent attacks on people are already illegal regardless of the motive behind them,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., warning that the legislation would “put us on a slippery slope of deeming particular groups as more important than others under our system of justice.”
Republican legislators also objected that the hate-crimes measure was attached to a $680 billion defense policy bill, which included a 3.4 percent pay increase for the military and authorization for the development of a new engine for the next-generation jet fighter, among other items.
The measure passed by a vote of 281-146, with Republicans complaining that they had been put in the politically awkward position of voting against a defense bill.
“We should not be doing social engineering on this bill,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said. To the Democrats, he added: “Shame on you.”
In July, the Senate overcame a Republican-led filibuster on a version of the hate-crime legislation by a 63-28 vote, virtually ensuring its passage when it returns to the chamber.
The hate-crime legislation would expand the law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity. Existing federal law defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on religion, race, national origin or color.
The measure would also give federal authorities more leeway to aid state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. It also makes grants available to state and local communities to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles and to train law enforcement officers in investigating, prosecuting and preventing hate crimes.
The bill also creates a new federal crime for attacking members of the military because of their service.
House approval of the measure, long championed by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., comes as Obama prepares to address the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday.
The gay rights group will present an award to Judy and Dennis Shepard, whose gay son, Matthew, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die 11 years ago in Wyoming. The legislation is named after him and James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death behind a truck in the east Texas town of Jasper, also in 1998.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said: “It is remarkable that, at this late date, hate crimes legislation should remain a controversial idea. The idea that someone could be singled out for a crime of violence due to his or her actual or perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability is simply repugnant.”