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Obama signs bill expanding hate crimes protections

[JURIST] US President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed into law a defense appropriations bill that contains a measure extending the definition of federal hate crimes to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The president hailed [press release] the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (NDAA) [HR 2647 materials] as a law containing long sought changes. Obama characterized [press release] the hate crimes measure, titled the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act [S 909 text], as "a victory decades in the making and steeped in blood and pain" that takes the nation further "on the journey towards a more perfect union." Judy Shepard of the Matthew Shepard Foundation [advocacy website] thanked Congress and the president "for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families," but said more must still be done. Human Rights Campaign [advocacy website] president Joe Solomonese said [press release], "[t]oday's signing of the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect LGBT Americans represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality."

Also included in the bill was a provision amending the Military Commissions Act of 2006 [text, PDF] to provide suspected terrorists with greater due process rights. The Constitution Project [advocacy website] said [press release] the amendments "raise[] serious constitutional concerns. Although they are an improvement from the 2006 version, the reformed commissions still fail to provide critical safeguards for the accused that are available in our traditional criminal justice system." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] criticized [press release] the bill as "fail[ing] to bring the tribunals in line with the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions."

Last week, the US Senate [official website] voted [JURIST report] 68-29 [roll call] to approve the NDAA. Earlier this month, it was passed in the House of Representatives [official website] on a 281-146 [roll call] vote [JURIST report]. Conservative members of Congress in both instances charged that the hate crimes provision was an inappropriate measure to include in a military appropriations bill, while some specifically opposed special protections to victims from crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch [press releases] have said that while the revisions to the military commissions system contained in the appropriations bill are improvements over the current system, they still contain unconstitutional provisions that do not cure the flawed system.

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