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IN THE NEWS - Gays and Disabled Are Now Protected Under Hate Crimes Law in US

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This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

This week, President Obama signed an expansion of federal law on hate crimes. Such laws provide more investigative resources or longer sentences, or both, for crimes driven by prejudice.

Until now, federal law has covered crimes based on a victim's race, color, religion or national origin. Congress first acted in nineteen sixty-eight after the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Now, after years of effort by gay rights groups and others, the law will include sexual orientation. And it will extend protection to those victimized because of their gender or gender identity or a disability.

A 1999 protest in New York against hate crimes, on the first anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death
A 1999 protest in New York against hate crimes, on the first anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death

The new act passed by Congress is named for two victims of hate crimes. Matthew Shepard was a gay college student murdered in Wyoming in nineteen ninety-eight. That same year, three white men in Texas beat a black man, James Byrd Junior, and pulled him to his death behind a truck.

Democrats attached the new hate crimes legislation to a major defense bill that had to be passed. Republicans wanted to consider it separately. John Boehner, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, called it "thought crimes" legislation and "radical social policy."

James Byrd Jr.
James Byrd Jr.

In a statement, he said "all violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously." The legislation, he said, "places a higher value on some lives than others."

Most of the states also have some form of laws of their own dealing with hate crimes. More than seven thousand six hundred incidents were reported nationwide in two thousand seven, the most recent year available. Seventeen percent were linked to sexual orientation.

Frederick Lawrence is a dean at George Washington University Law School. He says the United States has been somewhat of a leader in passing hate crimes legislation. Now such laws are becoming more common internationally.

They take different forms in different countries. For example, some countries ban speech that could incite hatred. Germany bans showing symbols of its Nazi past.

In the United States, free speech is protected by the Constitution. But social and religious conservatives expressed fears that they might now be accused of a hate crime if they denounced homosexuality. Professor Lawrence says the new federal law -- meant to prevent violence -- will not limit free speech rights.

On a separate issue, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week criticized international efforts by Islamic countries to ban anti-religious speech.

HILLARY CLINTON: "The best antidote to intolerance is not the 'Defamation of Religions' approach of banning and punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups, and a vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression."

The Organization of the Islamic Conference has been urging the United Nations to approve anti-defamation measures.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English, written by Brianna Blake. You can find transcripts and podcasts of our programs -- and share comments -- at www.unsv.com. I'm Bob Doughty.

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