BY Kerry Eleveld
October 22 2009 4:50 PM ET
The Senate voted 68 to 29 Thursday to pass a Defense Department funding bill that includes a measure extending hate-crimes protections to people targeted on the basis of their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.
The National Defense Authorization Act now goes to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature.
“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 looks forward to signing it into law,” said White House spokesman Shin Inouye.
The late senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts originally introduced the legislation in 1997 during the 105th Congress. The bill was renamed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in honor of Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man from Wyoming, and James Byrd, a 49-year-old African-American man from Texas, both of whom were brutally murdered in 1998.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, today's vote was the 14th and final floor vote taken on the measure. HRC president Joe Solmonese said the more than decade-long struggle to enact the legislation had almost come to completion.
“We’re in the home stretch,” said Solmonese. “We look forward to President Obama signing it into law; our nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
Along with expanding the protected groups, the legislation will provide extra resources to state and local law enforcement officials, give the U.S. Justice Department the power to investigate hate crimes that local officials decline to pursue, and direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track hate crimes committed against transgender individuals -- statistics the FBI already keeps for other groups.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said including hate crimes within the defense authorization bill was perfectly logical.
"It is highly appropriate for this law to be part of the National Defense Authorization Act," he said. "The values our men and women fight for include tolerance and freedom from hate-inspired violence against our citizens. Indeed, hate crimes represent a dangerous variety of domestic terrorism while our troops fight terrorism overseas.”