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Despite Republican opposition, the House voted to expand the definition of violent federal hate crimes making it a crime to assault people because of their sexual orientation.

Civil rights groups have attempted for more than a decade to expand hate-crimes legislation, which protects people victimized on the basis of race, national origin and religion, to include gays.

This legislation will make the difference on cases like that of Sean Kennedy of South Carolina. Sean was leaving a bar in Greenville County when a car pulled up next to him. Deputies believe Stephen Moller jumped out of the car, punched Sean and then took off. Sean fell after getting blind-sided and either hit his head on either a curb or pavement. He died less than 24 hours later from his injuries.

Two years ago, Sean’s mother Elke Kennedy told a crowd of more than 100 people, “We’ve got to stop the hate. How could anyone think of hurting anyone because of who they are?”

While there are state laws punishing assault of another person, there is no South Carolina law that makes it a crime to assault someone based on his or sexual orientation.

This legislation comes on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Sheppard, a college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. As important as this legislation is, it only passes because it is attached to a Department of Defense bill.

It’s now off to the President to sign into law.