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President Bush said he may veto a law that would expand the definition and prosecution of hate crimes. The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday in a 222-195 vote, expands the definition of hate crimes to include gender, sexual orientation and disability in addition to race, religion and national origin. It also expands targeted crimes beyond those violating federally protected acts such as voting. Such restrictions have frustrated federal prosecutions when pressures have led local authorities to drop charges. Hate crime legislation allows prosecutors to seek tougher punishments for crimes committed against a class of people. A number of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Council for Public Affairs and National Council of Jewish Women, back the bill. Conservative Christian groups rallied against the bill, worried that it would establish a precedent in U.S. law for gay rights.

In a statement Thursday, the White House said Bush’s “senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” language just short of a pledge to do so a sign that Bush could still change his mind. The White House worried that the law might be unconstitutional because it federalizes crimes unrelated to federal activity. Backers of the hate-crimes law countered that such laws are passed routinely, noting recent federal laws signed by Bush that ban burro slaughter and cockfighting. “Since similar federal hate crime laws have never been successfully challenged and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of hate crimes laws in 1993 we are confident that this law will pass constitutional muster,” the ADL said in a statement. The White House announcement also expressed concern that other classes of Americans such as “the elderly, members of the military, police officers and victims of prior crimes” were not included in the bill.

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