U.S. House votes to expand ‘hate crimes’ laws

.- By a vote of 249-175, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expand federal “hate crime” laws to include sexual orientation, gender identity, or mental or physical disability.

Current law limits federal jurisdiction over hate crimes to assaults based on race, color, religion or national origin.

President Barack Obama asked Congress to pass the Federal Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, saying it would “protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance.”

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer argued that the crimes “terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric.”

Conviction of a hate crime causes additional punishment and would allow the federal government to help state and local authorities investigate “hate crimes,” the Associated Press reports.

During debate on the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith argued the bill was discriminatory.

"All violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted," Rep. Smith said. "Unfortunately, this bill undermines one of the most basic principles of our criminal justice system -- 'equal justice for all.'"

"Justice will now depend on the race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other protected status of the victim," Smith said. "It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime."

President George W. Bush had helped stop the bill in the last Congress, arguing existing state and federal laws were adequate.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said that all violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously, but argued the legislation “places a higher value on some lives compared to others. That is unconstitutional, and that is wrong. Republicans believe that all life was created equally, and all life should be defended equally.”

He said he was particularly concerned about the implications the legislation would have on religious groups expressing their beliefs.

“Simply put, this bill is not only a threat to the constitutional principle of equal justice under the law, but to religious freedom of speech as well,” he added.