WASHINGTON (CNN) - The House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday expanding federal protection against hate crimes to disability, gender, and
The bill, which was approved by a margin of 249-175, passed in a sharply-divided partisan vote. An overwhelming majority of Democrats supported the measure, while most Republicans were opposed.
The proposal, which now moves to the Senate for further consideration, is one of the most sensitive civil rights issues to come before the Congress in years. Currently, federal law covers only a person's race, religion, or national origin.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would also expand federal protection against hate crimes to acts committed under any circumstance, as opposed to acts committed only when an individual is engaged in certain federally-designated activities, such as voting.
Known as the Matthew Shepard Act, the measure would allow the attorney general to issue grants to cities and states for the purpose of investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who died in 1998 after being attacked because of his sexual orientation.
The bill has received support from a range of civil rights and law enforcement groups, who argue that is a necessary addition to civil rights protections first issued over forty years ago.
"Hate crimes tear the fabric of our society ... because they target an entire community or group of people, not just the individual victim, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida, said during the debate on the House floor.
"The fact of the matter is hate crimes happen every day, and we should not wait for another Matthew Shepard to ensure justice."
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, argued in a written statement that the legislation is necessary "because hate crimes are such a unique offense. They are an attack not just on individuals but an attempt to terrorize and demoralize entire communities."
Some conservative opponents of the bill, however, argued that the bill violated traditional American conceptions of equal justice by establishing specially protected groups of citizens.
"Regardless of whether a person is white, black, handicapped, healthy, old, sick, young, homosexual, heterosexual, a veteran, a police officer, (or) a senior... Whatever the case is, they deserve equal protection under the law," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, said.
"That is the foundational premise of this nation and this legislation moves us all directly away from that. ... Whenever we begin to divide ourselves into groups and afford one group more protection than another, we necessarily diminish the protection and equality of all the remaining groups."
Other opponents warned that the legislation would undermine freedom of thought and expression.
"If this bill becomes law, it will have a chilling effect on many law-abiding Americans' freedom of expression," Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, said.
It "will start us down the road towards a public square that is less robust, more restrictive, and that will squelch our cherished constitutional right to free speech. ... We should not live and legislate in fear of bankrupt ideas."
Besides, Foxx asked, is "there such a thing as non-hateful violent crime?"
Supporters of the bill replied by claiming that there is, in fact, a distinction.
"Hate crimes are different from other types of crimes because the perpetrator targets a certain type of person based upon physical or other personal attributes," Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Florida said.
These "crimes are a purposeful, violent, and dangerous manifestation of prejudice. ... (They are) not only a problem for victims, but also for our communities and neighborhoods."