WASHINGTON (CNN) - The fight over gay rights is taking center stage once again as the U.S. Senate prepares to vote as early as Thursday on groundbreaking legislation expanding the scope of federal hate-crimes law.
The measure, added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill, would make it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. The House has already passed the measure. It will go to President Barack Obama's desk if, as expected, it clears the Senate.
President George W. Bush had threatened to veto a similar measure; Obama has promised to sign it.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998.
Several religious groups have expressed concern that a hate-crimes law could be used to criminalize conservative speech relating to subjects such as abortion or homosexuality.
Attorney General Eric Holder has asserted that any federal hate-crimes law would be used only to prosecute violent acts based on bias, as opposed to the prosecution of speech based on controversial racial or religious beliefs.
Earlier this month, Obama told the country's largest gay rights group that the nation still needs to make significant changes to ensure equal rights for gays and lesbians.
"Despite the progress we've made, there are still laws to change and hearts to open," he said during his address at the dinner for the Human Rights Campaign. "This fight continues now and I'm here with the simple message: I'm here with you in that fight."
Among other things, Obama has called for the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military - the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He also has urged Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and pass the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act.
The Defense of Marriage Act defines marriage, for federal purposes, as a legal union between a man and a woman. It allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. The Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act would extend family benefits now available to heterosexual federal employees to gay and lesbian federal workers.
More than 77,000 hate-crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or "nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.
The FBI, Holder added, reported 7,624 hate-crime incidents in 2007 - the most current year with complete data.