Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress on Thursday to expand federal protections to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, a move conservatives say would criminalize those who simply speak against homosexuality.
Addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder argued for the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, saying "the time is now" to protect communities from violence based on bigotry and prejudice.
Named after a gay man killed in 1998, the bill would add violence against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability to the list of federal hate crimes.
Opponents of the bill say expanding the federal hate crime law is unnecessary considering state and local governments already prosecute violent crimes. But Holder argued that there are instances where the federal government needs to come in.
He also insisted that the bill would be used only to prosecute violent acts and not speech.
"It is the person who commits the actual act of violence, who would be subject to this legislation, not the person who is simply expressing an opinion," he said, responding to concerns from clergy and other religious leaders who say they could face prosecution just for expressing their religious views on homosexuality because their teachings could be blamed for inciting violence.
Holder's assertion, however, does not convince Christians that the bill will not lead to an abridgment of free speech.
Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, points out that the explicit mention of "the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment" was removed from the version that was passed by the House in April.
"There is nothing in this bill that explicitly prevents any homosexualist-activist judge, of which there are many, from ruling that calling homosexual acts a grave 'abomination' by appeal to Levitical prohibitions constitutes an inducement to violence," Gagnon states in an article series arguing against the hate crimes legislation.
The Pittsburgh Seminary professor views the bill as "the Trojan horse of an aggressive gay/transgender lobby."
He argues that it offers "to the public the 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity' law least likely to meet with massive public resistance." And once the horse is within the city walls, then passing other laws on sexual orientation and gender identity will be relatively easy.
Moreover, he contends that placing "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" alongside "race," "color" or "national origin" "ensconces in federal law the principle that homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality are as benign as race, gender, and disability – an aspect of human diversity that must be affirmed and celebrated."
"Those who refuse to go along with this principle then become encoded in law as hateful, discriminatory bigots," he notes.
On that note, Gagnon says the hate crimes bill is not primarily about protecting homosexual and transgendered persons from violence, as they are already protected by existing state laws. Instead, the bill is really a hate-promotion bill, he argues.
"[S]upport for this bill does not mean that you oppose hateful, violent acts against persons who self-identify as homosexuals, transsexuals, and cross-dressers," he says. "Rather, it means that you support stigmatizing, marginalizing, and penalizing people who, lovingly or not, oppose homosexual practice and transgenderism."
Christian groups and religious broadcasters have persistently spoken out and urged followers and listeners to contact their senators to reject the pending hate crimes legislation. A letter signed by more than 60 conservative leaders, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of Family Research Council and Don Wildmon of American Family Association, was reportedly hand-delivered to every member of the Senate last week.