Congress Acts To Extend Federal Hate Crimes Law To Cover The Disabled

The House has voted to give the disabled, as well as gays and lesbians, federal protection from hate crimes. The new legislation also makes it a new federal crime to attack U.S. service members because of their sexual orientation. With passage by the Senate expected, federal prosecutors will, for the first time, be able to intervene in cases of violence perpetrated against gays and the disabled.

Federal legislation enacted after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 defined hate crimes as those carried out on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It also limited the scope of activities that would trigger federal involvement. The new bill significantly expands the hate crimes law to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It eases restrictions on federally protected activities.

Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change the current situation where investigations and prosecutions are carried out by state and local officials. But it would provide federal grants to help with the prosecuting of hate crimes and fund programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles.

The new law (Section 4701 of H.R. 2647, called the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act) is attached to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill and President Barack Obama is a strong supporter. The new law is expected to pass.

Update: On October 22, 2009, the Senate voted 68 to 29 in favor of a defense policy bill which included an expansion to the federal hate crimes law. The new law expands the current federal hate crimes law to include crimes based on disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill was sent to President Obama, who has said he will sign it into law.