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WASHINGTON — Reports of hate crimes against gays and religious groups increased sharply in 2008, according to FBI data released Monday.

Overall, the number of reported hate crime incidents increased about 2 percent. These same figures show a nearly 11 percent increase in hate crime offenses based on sexual orientation, and a nearly 9 percent increase in hate crime offenses based on religion.

The largest category, racially motivated hate crimes, fell less than 1 percent.

RELATED: Obama Signs Bill Expanding Hate Crime Laws To Cover Gay People

Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil rights group, called the numbers unacceptable and said they showed the need for the expanded federal hate crimes law signed last month by President Barack Obama.

Among all categories of hate crimes, roughly a third are vandalism or property damage. About 30 percent involve intimidation of some kind, and another 30 percent were physical attacks.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not compare year-to-year trends in hate crimes, saying the number of agencies reporting changes too much. In fact, the bureau cautioned that the increase reported Monday might well be due to more agencies tracking such incidents.

Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, warned that the national numbers may be misleading because some states — like California, New Jersey, and Ohio — are good at reporting hate crimes while others — Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Pennsylvania — are not.

“The quality of the data is so variable and in some instances so bad that it makes trend analysis extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible,” said Levin. “Generally, states that have effective data collection also have effective training and procedures to address these crimes.”

In 2008, 2,145 different agencies reported hate crimes incidents, while the year before 2,025 agencies did this reporting.

In total, there were 7,783 hate crimes reported to the FBI last year, and seven murders were categorized as hate crimes.

RELATED: Eric Holder Pushes For War Against Hate Crimes

The FBI data is based on information law enforcement agencies voluntarily report to the bureau.

Half of all hate crimes are motivated by race, according to the FBI. One out of every five is driven by religious bias, and one out of every six is based on sexual orientation bias.

The Anti-Defamation League said Monday’s figures — the highest total for hate crimes since 2001 — show a need for a new national initiative to combat bias crimes.

Less than a month ago, Obama signed a bill expanding those covered by the federal law against hate crimes. Previously, the law had protected those attacked on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.

The law signed by Obama now covers crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also removes the restriction that federal authorities can launch investigations of victims who were engaged in federally protected activities like voting or free speech.

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