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In Historic Vote, Senate Gives Final Approval to Hate Crimes Protections for Gays

October 22, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to expand federal hate crimes laws to include crimes motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical disability. The vote ends a decade-long push for supporters of the measure in Congress and ensures that it will become law soon.

The bill, commonly referred to as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, has been introduced in some form or another and voted on in every session of Congress since 1999. In 2007, it passed both the House and the Senate as an amendment to a Defense authorization bill only to be scrapped by Democratic leaders in Congress after President Bush threatened to veto the bill if it was included.

President Obama has long supported hate crimes protections for the LGBT community and is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days.

The bill was sponsored this session of Congress by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy [D, MA]. In Kennedy’s absence, the version of the bill that was passed by the Senate, as an amendment to the 2010 Defense bill, was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy [D, VT]. “Senator Kennedy provided steadfast leadership on this issue for more than a decade, and the Senate’s action today is a testament to his dedication to enacting hate crimes legislation,” Leahy said after the vote.

Though most states have their own hate crimes laws, federal law currently covers only crimes committed on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion or national origin, and only in cases where the crime was committed while the person was engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school. In addition to adding the new areas of protections at the federal level, the hate crimes legislation approved by the Senate today would remove the prerequisite that the crime was committed during a federally protected activity. The bill would allow the federal government to step in if the Justice Department determines that the state the crime was committed in is unwilling or unable to follow through with investigating a hate crime allegation.

The bill was approved by a vote of 68-29. All Democrats and Independent except Sen. Russell Feingold [D, WI] voted in favor. Feingold, who has voted “yes” in the past on versions of the legislation, voted “no” because, he said, the underlying Defense bill “does nothing to bring our open-ended and disproportionate military commitment in Afghanistan to an end and/or to ensure that our troops are safely and expeditiously redeployed from Iraq.”

Ten Republicans also voted in favor. They are Sen. Christopher Bond [R, MO], Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME], Sen. John Cornyn [R, TX], Sen. John Ensign [R, NV], Sen. Judd Gregg [R, NH], Sen. Kay Hutchison [R, TX], Sen. Richard Lugar [R, IN], Sen. John McCain [R, AZ], Sen. Olympia Snowe [R, ME] and Sen. George Voinovich [R, OH]. Interestingly, only five of them voted with Democrats just moments earlier on a motion to overcome a Republican-led filibuster of the bill. You can see the Republicans that sided with the Democrats on that vote by clicking here.

The Associated Press has a good article if you want to learn more about the defense provisions in the bill.

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