The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to continue debate and vote Thursday on hate crimes legislation that seeks to add homosexual and transgender people to a list of specially protected categories of people under federal law.
The panel is expected to reconvene Thursday morning after a five-hour hearing the day before, during which several amendments backed by Republicans were rejected by Democratic supporters of the bill.
H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act of 2009, would add "sexual orientation," "gender" and "gender identity" to a list of federally protected classes that already include race, religion, color, or national origin.
During the debates, Republican lawmakers attempted to include members of the military, seniors, unborn babies and pregnant women in the measure but Democrats rejected the proposed amendments.
Another amendment that would strip "gender identity" from the bill was also voted down.
Democratic lawmakers also shot down an amendment by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that sought to change the name of the legislation to "Local Law Enforcement Thought Crimes Prevention Act of 2009."
"This hate crimes bill is actually a bill to control our thoughts," said King, while citing George Orwell's 1984: "The party is not interested in the overt act, the thought is all we care about."
Many Christian-based groups are opposed to the bill and have been closely monitoring its status. They argue that the measure could criminalize religious speech, leading to cases where pastors who preach against homosexuality could face the same prosecution as someone who committed a violent act against a homosexual.
"H.R. 1913 is a backdoor tool from the far left and radical homosexuals to shut down legitimate free speech from Christians and others who oppose their lifestyle," said Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern. "Pastors in Europe and Canada have already been arrested for preaching against homosexuality based on similar legislation."
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, said the legislation is "riddled with problems."
"The problem, which few want to acknowledge for fear of being labeled politically incorrect, or worse homophobic, is that in order to crack down on hateful behavior, hateful thoughts and expression must also be targeted-which runs diametrically counter to the First Amendment's protections for free speech and expression," wrote Whitehead in a commentary Wednesday.
Conservative groups say that the legislation would violate the 14th Amendment, which guarantees "equal protection under the law" for all citizens, by granting special protections to some victims and not to others.
Gay rights advocates argue the measure would help crack down on hate crimes motivated by a victim's sexual orientation or gender by allowing the federal government to step in to assist local authorities where needed.
But opponents of the bill contend that the legislation is unnecessary given existing hate crime laws in 45 states.
In 2007, a similar bill was passed by the House. The Senate then passed the hate crimes legislation as part of a defense spending bill. But House and Senate negotiators decided to strip the provision from the defense spending bill after concluding it lacked the necessary votes to pass in the House.
H.R. 1913 is expected to clear the House Judiciary Committee and be sent to the House of Representatives for a vote sometime this spring.