In an historic step toward equality for LGBT Americans, the US Senate voted to pass the Matthew Shepard Act.

It updates and expands the federal hate crimes laws to include bias motivated violence based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability, and provides new resources and tools to assist local law enforcement in prosecuting vicious crimes.

The Senate voted 60 to 39 to allow the new legislation to move forward.

It was approved by a “voice vote” as an amendment to a military finance measure.

Gay rights advocates are delighted by the decision, but the Matthew Shepard Act faces a Presidential veto.

“For over a decade our community has worked tirelessly to ensure protections to combat violence motivated by hate and today we are the closest we have ever been to seeing that become a reality,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.

“Congress has taken an historic step forward and moved our country closer to the realisation that all Americans, including the LGBT community, are part of the fabric of our nation.

“The new leadership in Congress fully understands that for too long our community has been terrorized by hate violence.

“And today, the US Senate has sent a clear message to every corner of our country that we will no longer turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence in America.”

President Bush has called hate crime legislation for the LGBT community unnecessary.

However, he faces the prospect of vetoing a Department of Defence budget bill in order to block the LGBT hate crimes law, which was named after the murdered gay teenager who brought the issue of hate crimes into the American consciousness.

Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in freezing Wyoming in 1998.

He was the victim of a hate crime, targeted because he was gay, and his story has inspired Senators from both sides to try to bring forward new laws.

In May the House of Representatives passed a companion bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLEHCPA) with a bipartisan margin of 237 to 180.

Twenty-six state Attorneys General as well as 230 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organisations support the Matthew Shepard Act and the LLEHCPA.

Some of these supporting organisations include the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the NAACP, the Episcopal Church, the League of Women Voters, the Anti-Defamation

League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the YWCA of the USA and the United Methodist Church.

The Matthew Shepard Act enables the US Justice Department to assist in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes and provides grants to help state and local governments meet the extraordinary expenses involved in hate crime cases.

According to the FBI, sexual orientation bias motivated 14% of such crimes in 2005.

A poll conducted in May found that nearly 70% of Americans are in favour extending hate crimes to cover LGBT people.

Support for the new protections extends across religious and political groups.

60% of Republicans and 64% of regular church goers supported the proposed new law.