This afternoon President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act into law. It is the first federal law that provides protections for LGBT people, after 14 separate Congressional floor votes.
Under the new law the Justice Department will have the power to investigate and prosecute bias motivated violence based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender or gender identity. Other categories already included in the law are race, color, religion, national origin and disability. The law also provides the Justice Department with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions by lending assistance or taking lead in investigations where a local entity is unable to do so. Grants will also be made available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes committed by minors and train law enforcement officers.
The bill was introduced in the Senate on April 28, 2009 by the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and others. The US House of Representatives voted on October 8, 281-146 in favor of the legislation. The Senate passed the bill with a vote of 68-29.