The Senate voted Thursday to attach a hate crimes bill as an amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill expected to be completed next week.
If passed in its current form, the legislation would expand federal hate crimes to include those perpetrated against people because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It would also remove restrictions on federally protected activities.
"The Senate made a strong statement this evening that hate crimes have no place in America," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after Thursday's vote.
One day earlier, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rebuked fellow lawmakers for circumventing standard protocol and adding a non-related amendment to a bill that seeks to provide additional support for U.S. troops.
"The underlying bill authorizes a 3.4 percent pay raise for all military personnel, provides billions in funding for new equipment for our men and women in uniform and offers billions of dollars for new technologies to keep our armed forces safe from our enemies. Are members willing to jeopardize these essential provisions for our troops by pushing unrelated amendments?" the former presidential contender asked.
The hate crimes bill, which passed the House in a similar version in April, enjoys solid support in the Democrat-controlled Senate and is backed by President Obama.
But critics say the legislation – sometimes referred to as the "thought crimes" legislation – raises more questions than answers and could be one step on "a slippery slope toward religious persecution."
"Hate crimes legislation ... would elevate homosexuals who are victims of violent crimes to special, protected status under the law based on their 'actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,'" noted Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"But that's just the beginning," he continued. "It would lay the groundwork for prosecuting Christians who share their biblical beliefs against homosexuality. This dangerous bill must be stopped!"
In his comments Wednesday on the Senate floor, McCain said it would be "absolutely wrong" to treat identical crimes differently depending on the police officer or prosecutor's determination of the political, philosophical, or even religious beliefs of the offender.
The senator emphasized that crimes motivated by "hate" deserve vigorous prosecution, but so do crimes motivated by absolute wanton disregard for life of any kind.
"I believe that all crimes should be vigorously prosecuted in order to protect one of our most fundamental rights – the right to be free from physical harm," McCain stated. "And I believe that anyone who is motivated by hatred and commits a crime should be prosecuted just as vigorously as anyone who is motivated by absolute wanton disregard for life."
Despite McCain's statement, the Senate approved the measure by a 63-28 voice vote. The 28 no votes were all Republicans. Five Republicans voted for it, giving supporters the 60 votes they needed.
Though Republicans will have the opportunity to propose several more changes to the hate crimes bill on Monday, the changes would not affect its status as part of the $680 billion defense bill.
Passage of the bill would effect the most significant extension of hate crimes law since Congress first acted in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.