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Obama Signs Expanded Hate Crimes Law

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U.S. President Barack Obama has signed an expansion of federal hate crimes law. Under this measure, the government has greater ability to investigate and prosecute acts of violence driven by prejudice. And for the first time, the statute covers people targeted because of their sexual orientation or disabilities.

Eleven years ago, two separate crimes touched the conscience of the nation.

A college student in Wyoming was beaten and left for dead because he was gay.

A man in Texas was tied and dragged from a car till his body broke into pieces by racists because he was black.

The stories of Mathew Sheppard and James Byrd, Jr. led to calls for a strengthened federal hate crimes law - a measure designed to deter violent acts based on prejudice.

The debate was long and impassioned, with opponents saying a separate hate crimes statute is nothing more than an unnecessary layer of rules and regulations for law enforcement.

President Obama disagrees.

"Through this law, we will strengthen the protections against crimes based on the color of your skin, the faith in your heart, or the place of your birth," said President Obama. "We will finally add federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation."

In the end, language strengthening the hate crimes law was attached to a bill authorizing funding for the Defense Department - a move that angered many congressional conservatives.

President Obama signed that measure into law Wednesday before an audience of defense officials and members of Congress involved in national security policy.

Later in the day, he hosted a reception for those who worked on the expanded hate crimes legislation - including the families of Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd.

Mr. Obama spoke of their commitment to their cause during the ten year battle to enact the law.

"You understand that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones but break spirits, not only to inflict harm but to instill fear," said Mr. Obama.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the expanded hate crimes legislation - in his words - the next great civil rights bill. He said the new law will enable the Justice Department to assist local and state prosecutors, who handle most hate crimes. Holder said it also gives federal government the ability to press cases when local authorities do not.