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Historic victory! Hate crimes bill passes Senate, goes to president for signature
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Historic victory! Hate crimes bill passes Senate, goes to president for signature

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

As SGN goes to press, the US Senate has passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Recognizing Shepard and Byrd - an African American murdered in Jasper, Texas - the legislation adds real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes protections and authorizes the US Justice Department to investigate and assist in prosecuting hate crimes directed at LGBT persons in any state.

The final vote on the legislation - which was attached to the 2010 Defense Department Authorization Act - was 68 to 29.

Fifty-right Democrats were joined by 10 Republicans in voting to accept the Conference Report, reconciling the slightly different House and Senate versions of the Defense Authorization.

The Conference Report eliminated a provision in the original Senate version calling for the death penalty for some hate crimes. That provision had been introduced as an amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-S.C.).

The Conference Report kept another Sessions amendment listing assaults against US military personnel as hate crimes.

Both of Washington's senators - Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell - voted Yes. Liberal Democrat Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) voted against the Conference Report, as he usually does on defense bills. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) did not vote on the final bill, although he did vote to close debate on the measure earlier in the day.

The last of the New England Republicans - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine - also voted Yes.

The US House of Representatives passed the legislation on October 8, and it now requires only the president's signature to become law.

President Obama has promised to sign it.

Assistant US Attorney General Tom Perez - head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division - said in a major speech on October 14 that his division would vigorously prosecute anti-Gay acts if they were given legal authority to do so.

Perez's boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, repeatedly urged Congress to pass the new hate crimes legislation.

The hate crimes bill was originally attached to the defense authorization by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in July in an effort to avoid an expected Republican filibuster.

Since Senate rules require 60 votes to close debate on a measure, Reid wanted to attach the hate crimes piece to what most Senators would see as a must-pass bill.

A defense authorization bill allows Congress to appropriate money for Department of Defense operations and related activities like military construction, payment of military personnel, funding of veterans' benefits, and similar purposes.

BILL PASSAGE A PPLAUDED BY ACTIVISTS
Passage of the long-awaited hate crimes bill was immediately hailed by LGBT activists.

"We are now just a signature away from making these protections a reality," said National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey. "President Obama has promised to sign this bill into law. When he does, it will usher in a new era, one in which hate-filled violence will no longer be overlooked, undercounted or tolerated."

"Today, we have taken an important step forward on the march to full equality," Carey continued. "We still have a long road ahead of us, but with your continued support and action, and with the unwavering commitment of the LGBT community and straight allies, we will finally create a world where no one will be subjected to violence or any other injustice simply for living their lives, honestly and openly, and being who they are."

"We're in the home stretch. This critical piece of legislation is on its way to the president's desk for his signature," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe 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. Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence. We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country."

"We thank the Senate - indeed the full Congress - for passing the hate crimes bill, and especially those who provided strong leadership on this measure," said National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell. "My heart is very full today as I think of families who have lost loved ones, of Senator Kennedy, who championed this bill for so many years, and also as I imagine all those who may be saved by this measure. I look forward to President Obama swiftly signing this measure into law."

"Transgender people have been waiting so many years for assistance from the federal government in addressing the rampant and disproportional violence that we face," noted Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

"Today we move one step closer to our goal of ending violence motivated by hatred. Everyone in America deserves to live free of fear and of violence."

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