updated 5/7/2009 6:46:45 PM ET 2009-05-07T22:46:45

Maryland became the first state in the nation to extend hate-crimes protection to homeless people under a bill signed Thursday by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The bill adds homelessness to the protected categories under Maryland's hate-crimes law, which allows prosecutors to seek tougher penalties for those who target people because of factors such as race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

Between 1999 and 2007, there were 774 violent attacks on homeless people in the United States, and 217 people died as a result, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. California, Texas and Ohio are considering similar bills, and legislation has been introduced in Congress.

State Sen. Alex Mooney, the bill's sponsor, said the homeless are particularly vulnerable and deserve protection. He introduced the bill four years running before it was finally approved.

"Every year you didn't pass the bill, attacks on the homeless kept happening," Mooney said.

Mooney, one of the legislature's most conservative members, had to overcome skepticism from some colleagues who believed his true goal was to water down Maryland's hate crimes law. He had vociferously opposed adding sexual orientation to the statute.

But Mooney said he concluded that since hate crimes were well-established in Maryland law, other groups should be added even if they lack "political clout." He said he wasn't motivated by a specific attack on a homeless person but learned about the problem through news reports about several incidents.

Successful efforts by another lawmaker to add gender and disability to the hate-crimes law ultimately helped push Mooney's bill out of committee, and it was approved last month, on the final day of the legislative session. The new law takes effect Oct. 1.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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