The US House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, Wednesday, April 29th with a bipartisan majority.

Supporters of the bill say it would provide local law enforcement agencies with additional resources to investigate hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

In addition, it would provide federal agencies with a means to participate in local hate crimes cases when local agencies can’t or refuse to investigate serious bias-motivated crimes adequately. Funds would also be made available to local agencies for training purposes.

Two key provisions of the law would be to expand federally protected categories to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, pointed out that federal hate crimes statistics show that one in six hate crimes are committed against an LGBT person, and that number is on the rise.

‘The nation cannot wait any longer to protect all of its citizens,’ said Solmonese. ‘We should all be able to walk the streets without fear.’

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, described the need to address hate crimes and expand protections as the nation’s ‘unfinished business.’ Shelton rejected the idea that the law would limit free speech or religious rights.

‘Nothing in this bill prevents people from saying what’s on their minds in the streets and certainly not from our nation’s pulpits,’ Shelton said.

Echoing this comment, Caroline Frederickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, explained that her organization’s support for the bill is based on its protections of free speech. She pointed out that local or federal authorities would have the authority to investigate issues of speech only when the speech act in question is directly linked to the crime under investigation.

‘This bill has the strongest protection against the misuse of a person’s free speech that Congress has enacted in the entire federal criminal code,’ Frederickson argued.

Despite these facts, GOP opposition to the legislation astoundingly centered on seeing hate crimes as modes of free expression protected by the Constitution.

The Senate version of the bill will be introduced soon by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). President Obama has indicated that if the bill comes to his desk he will sign it.

Over 300 civil rights, civil liberties, faith-based and law enforcement organizations have endorsed the bill.