By Frank James
Individuals who are physically attacked merely because they are gay or lesbian will now be covered by an expansion of federal hate-crimes legislation the Senate approved Thursday.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was appended to a must-pass $680 billion defense bill which the Senate approved by a 68 to 29 vote. Shepard was the gay college student who was robbed, tortured and fatally beaten by two attackers in 1998.
The House has already passed the bill which President Barack Obama has promised to sign.
The bill is the greatest expansion of the 1969 federal hate-crime law enacted after the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and originally aimed at preventing and prosecuting acts of violence caused by a victim's race, religion or national origin.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy championed the legislation, as did Rep. John Conyers of Michigan who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers introduced the bill in 2001 but was never able to pass it when Republicans controlled Congress.
President George W. Bush also opposed the hate-crimes legislation.
The legislation was also opposed by conservatives who said the legislation could wind up punishing people of faith for expressing their opposition to homosexuality.
Besides increasing the penalties for attacks on victims based on their sexual orientation a crime, the legislation would also provide local and state officials with $10 million in funding to help them investigate such crimes.