After a decade-long struggle, Congress passed a bill Thursday evening that would make it a federal crime to attack someone based on the person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Senate – in a 68-29 vote, with most Republicans opposed – approved the measure that was attached to the $680 billion defense spending bill. It adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the existing list of categories which include race, religion, color or national origin. The measure now heads to President Obama's desk, who has vowed to sign it.
Though proponents of the bill celebrate its passage as a historic civil rights moment for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement, conservatives and some Christian groups fear the measure will infringe on their right to freedom of speech.
Opponents of the bill, dubbed by some as the "thought crimes" legislation, argue that it is unnecessary because gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are already protected under existing state laws. They also say the bill could be used to prosecute Christian broadcasters and pastors who preach homosexuality as sin because they could be accused of inciting violence.
"This hates crimes provision is part of a radical social agenda that could ultimately silence Christians and use the force of government to marginalize anyone whose faith is at odds with homosexuality," said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, following the bill's passage.
But Attorney General Eric Holder has asserted that the federal hate crimes law would only be used to prosecute violent acts based on prejudice, not speech or beliefs.
The hate crimes measure is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was kidnapped and beaten to death in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas in 1998.
"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," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest group in the country advocating for LGBT rights.
Obama in a recent address to the Human Rights Campaign called for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans gays from openly serving in the military; the passage of the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act, which would extend family benefits to the partner of gay and lesbian federal workers; and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines legal marriage as between a man and a woman.