WASHINGTON - The US Federal Government might soon be able to prosecute any hate crimes not properly addressed by local authorities, and the definition of those crimes will expand to cover attacks based on sexual orientation, disability, gender or gender identity.
The changes follow the Senate's passage of the hate crime amendment to the defense authorization bill, which is widely expected to pass and become law unless President Barack Obama vetoes it over expenditures on F-22 jets.
The old laws, enacted in 1968, gave federal protection only to hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin, and required that the victim be engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting, during the offense.
Hate crimes are mainly prosecuted on the local level, where hate crime laws vary widely. Five states have no such laws, and the rest have a range of laws against certain types of hate crimes.
"We believe that hate crimes have a dramatic impact on society and that it is incumbent upon the government and the community to take these crimes very seriously. The federal government has incomplete federal authority now to be able to be involved to respond to hate crimes," said Anti-Defamation League Washington counsel Michael Lieberman.
Lieberman and the ADL have been leading the effort among many Jewish organizations to get this legislation passed since it was first introduced 12 years ago.
The hate crimes amendment, which Obama has asked Congress to pass, mirrors the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which the House passed in April. The bill also provides additional resources for training and law enforcement on local levels, where most of the hate crimes will still be prosecuted.
"State and local governments will always come first. But if those governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute hate crimes - and if the Justice Department believes that may mean justice will not be served - this law will let the federal authorities lend a hand to state and local authorities," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking on the Senate floor.
The Jewish community has a special interest in these hate crime laws, as 69% of religiously motivated hate crimes were committed against Jews, according to the FBI's 2007 hate crime statistics.
"It's very frustrating for us, but it's also a reality that the community needs to live with," Jewish Council for Public Affairs policy associate Jared Feldman said.
While Jews were already protected by the religion clause of the old bill, the new bill does help better address hate crimes against Jews.
Lieberman said this bill helps decide "whether the federal government will be able to be involved in these types of cases and whether there can be investigative resources at the state level."
As an example of why federal jurisdiction is sometimes necessary, Lieberman cited the 1991 murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.
"Here you have a Jew who's killed on the streets of Brooklyn in the riot. There's absolutely no doubt that he is killed because he's a Jew," he said.
Since the murderer was not convicted by the state, Lieberman said this provides an example of how, on rare occasions, the Justice Department "can follow up and pursue and provide a federal remedy."
The measure has received almost across-the-board support from Jewish organizations.
"They've really been engaged in [supporting] this on all levels," Feldman said.
At a Senate hearing on the matter, Attorney-General Eric Holder explained why hate crimes deserve special attention from law enforcement.
"Bias-motivated acts of violence divide our communities, intimidate our most vulnerable citizens and damage our collective spirit," he said.
Opponents of this legislation, however, argue that hate crimes do not require these additional provisions.
"The broad language will unnecessarily extend federal law enforcement beyond its constitutional bounds. It will undermine the effectiveness and confidence of local law enforcement," Sen. Jim DeMint said.
"Justice is blind, and under the rule of law, justice must be blind - blind to the superficial circumstances of the victims and the defendants," he added.
Many Christians also expressed concern that the protection of homosexuals in the law will violate the free speech of those who preach against homosexuality.
According to Sen. Patrick Leahy, "This legislation would combat acts of violence motivated by hatred and bigotry, but it does not target pure speech, however offensive or disagreeable, and it certainly does not target religious speech."
Crimes committed based on sexual orientation are the third most frequent type of hate crimes, behind those linked to race and religion. Twenty states currently have no laws regarding hate crimes against homosexuals.