Judy Shepard, the mother of murdered gay teenager Matthew Shepard, has given her thanks to Congress and President Barack Obama for passing a new law to protect gays against hate crime.

Obama signed the bill into law today at a special signing ceremony attended by gay rights activists and members of the Shepard family.

It will expand federal hate crime laws to include crimes where the victims were targeted on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability.

In a statement, Shepard said: “When Dennis and I started calling ten years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long.

“The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged. But with President Obama’s support and the continually growing bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate lining up behind the bill this year, it became clear that 2009 was the year it would finally happen.”

The legislation allows federal authorities to pursue charges in violent crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability, in cases where local authorities cannot or will not secure appropriate convictions. It also opens up federal aid to local law enforcement for training, prevention and investigation.

“We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly,” Shepard added. “But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans.”

Also present at the signing was the family of James Byrd Jr, a black man lynched in 1998 by white supremacists. His murder, along with Shepard’s, was the catalyst for the new hate crime protection.

The bill’s full name is the the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act.