WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed and celebrated hate crime legislation that extends protection to people based on sexual orientation, sealing a long-fought victory to gay advocates. The president spoke of a nation becoming a place where "we're all free to live and love as we see fit."
The new law expands federal hate crimes to include those committed against people because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also loosens limits on when federal law enforcement can intervene and prosecute crimes, amounting to the biggest expansion of the civil-rights era law in decades.
"No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love," Obama said in East Room reception, surrounded by joyous supporters. "No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are, or because they live with a disability."
Civil rights groups and their Democratic backers on Capitol Hill have tried for a decade to expand the hate crimes law, but fell short because of a lack of coordination between the House and Senate, or opposition from President George W. Bush. This time, the bill got through when Democrats attached it to a must-pass $680 billion defense measure. Obama signed the combined bill in a separate ceremony earlier on Wednesday.
Conservatives have opposed the legislation, arguing that it creates a special class of victims and could serve to silence clergymen or others opposed to homosexuality on religious or philosophical grounds.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, whose family members stood with Obama. Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered and found tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. The same year, Byrd, a black man, was chained to a pickup by three white men and dragged to his death in Texas.
"We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits; not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear," Obama said.
Groups pushing for the expanded civil rights protections rejoiced. "This is a landmark step in eliminating the kind of hate motivated violence that has taken the lives of so many in our community," said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Hate crimes law enacted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 centered on crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.
Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change current practices where hate crimes are generally investigated and prosecuted by state and local officials. But it does broaden the narrow range of actions — such as attending school or voting — that can trigger federal involvement and allows the federal government to step in if the Justice Department certifies that a state is unwilling or unable to follow through on an alleged hate crime.
At the urging of Republicans, the bill was changed before it was passed in Congress to strengthen free speech protections to assure that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the basis of his or her speech, beliefs or association.
The hate crimes measure came as part of legislation that Obama also touted for other reasons: a crackdown on careless military spending.
The $680 billion bill kills some costly military projects while expanding war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill authorizes spending but doesn't provide any actual dollars. Rather, it sets guidance that is typically followed by congressional committees that decide appropriations. Obama said needless military spending was "an affront to the American people and to our troops."
In turn, he put most of its focus on what the bill does contain: project after project that Obama billed as unneeded. The bill terminates production of the F-22 fighter jet program, which has its origins in the Cold War era and, its critics maintain, is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates targeted certain projects for elimination, putting them at odds with some lawmakers. The same spending items deemed unnecessary or outdated by Pentagon officials can mean lost jobs and political fallout for lawmakers back in their home districts.
"When Secretary Gates and I first proposed going after some of these wasteful projects, there were a lot of people who didn't think it was possible, who were certain we were going to lose, who were certain that we were going to get steamrolled," Obama said. "Today, we have proven them wrong."
Still, Obama didn't win every fight. The legislation still contains an effort by lawmakers to continue development — over the president's strong objections — of a costly alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's fighter of the future. A vague White House veto threat about that never came to fruition.