WASHINGTON-A hate-crimes bill that includes homosexual and transgender people as protected groups is moving through the legislative process and heading toward a vote in the House of Representatives.
Under current hate-crime laws, certain groups can find additional protection from violence based on race, religion, and disability. The new law would include victims of violence based on gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. In other words, perpetrators of violent crimes designated as "hate crimes" face higher penalties.
Some Christian groups call the legislation a "backdoor" attempt to limit free speech, for example, exposing pastors who preach against homosexuality to prosecution. If the courts determine a violent crime was motivated by prejudice, or "bias," the perpetrator could be charged with a hate crime.
"Pastors in Europe and Canada have already been arrested for preaching against homosexuality based on similar legislation," said Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern.
The final clause of the legislation instructs that it cannot be used to prohibit "any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which passed the bill on Thursday, said he had met with leaders of various Christian denominations and resolved their free speech concerns. When asked if the bill protects First Amendment rights, Conyers told me, "I think it probably does. It's probably OK."
But King argues that since sexual identity groups would come under hate-crimes law, they are protected by Title 18 of the criminal code, which holds responsible not just the perpetrators but those who aid or counsel perpetrators. "The bill is flawed," he said, and could be used by people in the government with a "bias."
Though some Republicans have vehemently denounced the legislation-"a bill to control our thoughts," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa-seven Republicans joined Democrats to sponsor it.
One Republican, Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, represents a district with a high lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population. She said the bill imposes no limit on free speech but provides additional protection for these groups-protection her local law enforcement said was needed.
"If I hadn't had assurance from my police chiefs, I would have felt differently," Mack said.
Republicans tried to add amendments to the bill that would give hate-crime protection to members of the military, pregnant women, and seniors, but all the amendments were struck down-causing some to accuse Democrats of looking out for the gay lobby and not others.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a former judge, said it was "trying to create a special class of protected people who maybe shouldn't have protection," citing the 45 states that already have hate-crime laws.
The issue of violence based on sexuality has grown more heated since two children committed suicide in April after being bullied repeatedly for acting "gay."
President Obama has supported similar hate-crime legislation in the past, and Congress is expected to swiftly pass the bill into law.