President Obama delivered a major victory to the gay rights movement Wednesday by signing into law a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of minorities protected under federal hate crime laws.
The historic and controversial legislation was attached to a $680 billion defense authorization bill that was noteworthy for its elimination of some costly weapons systems and its expansion of the war in Afghanistan.
Speaking to an emotional audience of a few hundred gay rights activists in the White House East Room, hours after a separate ceremony for the defense authorization bill signing, Mr. Obama called the hate crimes portion of the legislation "the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade."
The president said the bill would move the United States closer toward becoming "a nation in which we're all free to live and love as we see fit."
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the most prominent gay rights group in Washington, said the bill was "the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans."
"[It] represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality," Mr. Solmonese said. "This law sends a loud message that perpetrators of hate violence against anyone will be brought to justice."
The law adds gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the classes of minorities already protected under federal hate crimes law. Minority classes already protected were race, religion, ethnicity and nationality.
Critics said that because the new law only adds harsher penalties for acts that are already illegal and subject to criminal prosecution, its main achievement is to move the nation toward the criminalization of politically incorrect speech.
"Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime," said Erik Stanley, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group.
"All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice. This law is a grave threat to the First Amendment because it provides special penalties based on what people think, feel or believe," Mr. Stanley said.
Conservative Christian leaders are fearful of precedents in Europe and Canada, where church pastors have been jailed for short periods over statements of faith that homosexuality is sinful.
But the move gives the president some breathing room with gay rights supporters, a group that has grown frustrated that Mr. Obama has not moved more quickly to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, or to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
Mr. Obama has paid tribute to the gay community, holding a gay pride reception at the White House in June, awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to gay rights icon Harvey Milk, and delivering the keynote speech earlier this month to the HRC annual awards dinner.
But activists have said that while they appreciate gestures from the president, they want action.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine acknowledged this ongoing tension in a statement issued after the president's signing of the legislation.
"There is still much work ahead, but today ... President Obama has delivered on his promise to sign an inclusive hate crimes bill into law," Mr. Kaine said.
Mr. Obama appeared on a dais with the parents of Matthew Shepard and the sisters of James Byrd Jr., the two men whose names appeared on the hate crimes bill. Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, and Byrd, a 49-year-old black man from Jasper, Texas, were both brutally murdered in 1998.
The defense authorization bill does not provide the actual funds for defense spending, but instead provides guidelines that are followed for the most part by congressional appropriations committees.
Mr. Obama noted that the bill eliminates funding for a new presidential helicopter fleet, which was six years behind schedule with costs that had ballooned to $13 billion.
"I won't be flying on that," Mr. Obama said.
The bill also eliminated the F-22 fighter program.
But not every project the White House opposed was cut. Lawmakers defied a presidential veto threat and retained funding for an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the bill.