The occurrence of a violent crime is never something to be taken lightly by the corrections system. But when a violent crime is motivated by an individual’s hatred of a certain type of people, federal law makes the punishment for such an offense more severe. On Thursday, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment to the federal hate crimes bill that would extend the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation, gender identity and physical disability — minorities who had lacked protection and recognition under the existing bill until now. And while President Barack Obama should indeed sign the bill, there are other actions he should take to end blatant discrimination in government policy.

The Matthew Shepard Act will amend the hate crime bill created after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The original law defined hate crimes as violent acts based upon race, color, religious affiliation or nationality. The amendment passed on Thursday would add crimes prompted by sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to that list. Included in the legislation was $680 billion in defense spending in an unsuccessful effort to cater to Republicans. The bill passed the Senate 68 to 29 with only one Republican vote.

This bill comes at a time when recognizing the bigotry that the LGBT community faces is more important than ever. Between 2006 and 2007, hate crimes against people based on sexual orientation increased 5.5 percent, according to 2008 statistics report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the most recent available report. And across the country, many states have chosen to discriminate against gay people by denying them equal marriage rights in the last several election cycles — including Michigan in 2004.

Excluding the LGBT community from protection for so long was a drastic oversight on the part of federal lawmakers. The legislation passed on Thursday will finally recognize LGBT individuals — as well as the disabled — as a minority group deserving of the same protections against violence based in abject hatred and intolerance. Whether or not the federal law is successful in deterring hate crimes, it is a symbolic gesture of support for communities often discriminated against.

But in addition to simply signing this bill and offering largely symbolic support, Obama has at his disposal the power to end blatant discrimination. The military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which was put in place by President Bill Clinton in 1993, prohibits openly gay members from serving. During his campaign, Obama repeatedly promised to end the policy. Early this month, Obama reiterated his commitment to ending it. But promises are no longer good enough — Obama has had the power to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” via executive order ever since he became president. There is no reason to delay, and Obama’s hesitation on this issue sends mixed messages.

The hate crimes legislation will make a long-overdue statement against bigotry directed at the LGBT community. But the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would spell the demise of real discrimination in U.S. federal policy. Obama has a responsibility not to let such discrimination continue any longer.

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