Attorneys at a Christian legal group are urging the U.S. Senate not to pass the expanded "Hate Crimes" bill, which the House this week voted 249-175 in favor of.
The attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund insist that the bill, H.R. 1913, could severely impede Americans' constitutional rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression while creating additional legal protections for those engaged in homosexual behavior that are not available to everyone else.
If made into law, the bill would add violence against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability to the list of federal hate crimes. Current federal law only covers crimes committed on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin.
"All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice," said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot in a released statement. "So-called 'hate crime' laws actually serve only one purpose: The criminalization of citizens based on whatever thoughts, beliefs, and emotions they have that are not considered to be 'politically correct.' No one should fall for the idea that this bill does anything to bring about greater justice for Americans."
Last week, ADF attorneys had delivered a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, urging it to reject the bill. In it, the attorneys shared how similar efforts to "impose upon sincere people of faith a 'political orthodoxy'" have already led to fines, arrests, and prosecution in states with similar legislation.
One small photography company in New Mexico, for example, had been fined by that state's human rights commission for refusing to photograph a civil union "commitment ceremony."
In another example, a group of Christians in Philadelphia that protested at an "Outfest" in 2005 was arrested and charged under Pennsylvania's hate crimes laws with "ethnic intimidation," "riot," and "conspiracy."
"Although the charges were ultimately dismissed (with Alliance Defense Fund assistance), they nevertheless had to go through the ordeal of arrest and prosecution," the attorneys noted.
"Simply being required to undergo a criminal defense in such circumstances can lead to a chill and censorship of legitimate free speech and free exercise of religion activities," they added.
ADF and other opponents of the bill see its passage as one step on "a slippery slope toward religious persecution."
"Similar laws in this country that elevate 'sexual orientation' and/or 'gender identity' to a protected status are being used to silence and punish those who oppose homosexual behavior on legitimate moral and religious grounds," ADF attorneys argued.
Supporters of the bill, however, say the bill is necessary, noting that hate crimes against sexual orientation are the third most frequent, behind race and religion and ahead of ethnicity or national origin.
"I would think that the followers of Jesus would be first in line to protect any group from hate crimes," commented Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland - A Church Distributed in Florida and a member of President Obama's advisory council for faith-based and community initiatives.
"This bill protects both the rights of conservative religious people to voice passionately their interpretations of their scriptures and protects their fellow citizens from physical attack," Hunter continued. "I strongly endorse this bill."
At the present moment, all states except five – Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming – have hate crime laws, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Before the House vote on Wednesday, President had urged both sides of the House to pass the legislation "that will enhance civil rights protections, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association."
He later urged the Senate to work with his administration to "finalize this bill and to take swift action."