The Senate voted Thursday to extend new federal protections to people who are victims of violent crime because of their gender or sexual orientation, bringing the measure close to reality after years of fierce debate.
The 68-29 vote sends the legislation to President Barack Obama, who has said he supports it.
The measure, attached to an essential military-spending bill, broadens the definition of federal hate crimes to include those committed because of a victim’s gender or gender identity, or sexual orientation. It gives victims the same federal safeguards already afforded to people who are victims of violent crimes because of their race, color, religion or national origin.
“Hate crimes instill fear in those who have no connection to the victim other than a shared characteristic such as race or sexual orientation,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored the hate-crime amendment to the military bill and called its passage a worthy tribute to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who first introduced hate-crime legislation in the Senate more than a decade ago.
Opponents argued to no avail that the new measure was unnecessary in view of existing laws and might interfere with local law enforcement agencies. Ten Republicans voted for the hate-crime measure.
The Senate action came two weeks after the House approved the measure, 281-146, and would give the federal government the authority to prosecute violent, antigay crimes when local authorities failed to.
The measure would also allocate $5 million a year to the Justice Department to assist local communities in investigating hate crimes, and it would allow the agency to assist in investigations and prosecutions if local agencies requested help.
Federal protections for people who are victims of violent crime because of their sexual orientation have been sought for more than a decade, at least since the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student.