TYLER, TX (KLTV) - From lynchings to cross burnings to vandalism of synagogues, the FBI has been investigating hate crimes since the 1920's. In the United States, a hate crime is a criminal offense. Federal prosecution is possible for crimes committed on the basis of a person's race, color, or religion.
But, the long fight to add sexual orientation, gender and gender identity to the last, may finally be over.
"It doesn't matter if you're homosexual, heterosexual, white, black, green - it doesn't matter," said U.S. Congressman Louie Gohmert. "If you're a victim, you deserve to be protected."
On Thursday, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which will make it a federal crime to assault a person because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. President Obama's signature will make it law.
"And, it's just the tip of the iceberg," said Troy Carlyle, founder of Tyler Area Gays. "We're beginning to be recognized as human beings with fundamental human rights."
Carlyle says hate against gays should no longer be tolerated.
"We should all be able to agree that they do not deserve to be beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation," said Carlyle.
"Those of use who are opponents of this bill, like me, believe with all our hearts, if someone commits a crime of violence against another, they should be punished," said Gohmert.
But, Congressman Gohmert worries that this bill could limit the first amendment rights of free speech and religious expression.
"They can go back and see: Did he ever attend someone's church?" said Gohmert. "Did that minister at that church preach about homosexuality or evil?"
East Texas civil attorney Greg Smith says speech relating to homosexuality will not be criminalized.
"This one has a provision that ensures it doesn't prosecute beliefs, but only acts," said Smith. "It does that by an expressed rule of evidence."
"And, I think that they're going to find that when we protect gay people under the hate crimes legislation, it's not going to be the end of the world either," said Carlyle.
According to the FBI, as of 2007, more than 16 percent of all hate crimes in the U.S. resulted from sexual orientation bias. More than 50 percent were racially motivated. James Byrd Jr. is also honored in the hate crimes act. He was dragged to death in 1998 because he was black.