WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether recent reports of intimidation and harassment, including in schools and at churches, violate federal hate crime and other civil rights laws, following a divisive presidential election campaign.
"Many Americans are concerned by a spate of recent news reports about alleged hate crimes and harassment," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Friday in a videotaped statement. "The FBI is assessing, in conjunction with federal prosecutors, whether particular incidents constitute violations of federal law."
Civil rights groups have signaled alarm over attacks they say have targeted minorities, including Muslim, black and Hispanic Americans, since Republican Donald Trump won the presidential election on Nov. 8. There have also been reports of harassment toward Trump supporters.
Federal hate crime laws increase the penalties for criminal behavior that is motivated by bias against the victim based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other protected classifications.
Earlier this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released annual crime statistics for 2015 showing a 67 percent increase from the previous year in hate crimes against Muslims, a report that Lynch called "deeply sobering" on Friday.
During the campaign, Trump proposed temporarily keeping Muslims from entering the country to protect national security, though he has since backed away from a total ban.
The wealthy businessman and former reality television star has called for unity since the election. In a televised interview, Trump told people to stop engaging in attacks and intimidation.
Lynch, who became attorney general in the spring of 2015, is expected to be replaced by U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who was named as Trump's choice for the country's top law enforcement post on Friday.
Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney and state attorney general in Alabama, needs to be confirmed by the Senate in order to take Lynch's place, a process that could prove challenging despite his qualifications.
Sessions was denied confirmation as a federal judge in 1986 after allegations that he had made racist remarks. He denied that he was a racist but said at his hearing that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered "un-American."
In a statement, the ACLU expressed concern over Sessions' record and whether he would protect the rights of "all Americans."
(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Franklin Paul and Alistair Bell)