The House voted Thursday in favor of expanding hate crimes protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The bill was attached to the 2010 Defense Authorization bill.
In a 281 to 146 vote, the House approved a measure that conservatives say was sneaked into a must-pass defense policy bill.
"The inclusion of 'thought crimes' legislation in what is otherwise a bipartisan bill for troop funding is an absolute disgrace," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, head of the GOP conservative caucus, according to The Associated Press.
Christian leaders and conservatives have actively voiced their opposition to the hate crimes bill that seeks to add violence against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability to the list of federal hate crimes. They contend that it would infringe on their freedom of speech and religion and be used to prosecute ministers who preach homosexual behavior as sin.
Democrats, meanwhile, hailed what they believe is a long overdue measure. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that it's been over a decade since the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, whom the bill is named after.
"No American should ever have to suffer persecution or violence because of who they are, how they look or what they believe," Pelosi said, as reported by AP.
Some Christian pastors, including Dr. Joel C. Hunter of Northland – A Church Distributed in Florida, have endorsed the bill, especially after changes were made to bar prosecution based on the expression of racial, religious, political or other beliefs.
But many conservatives are not convinced of their free speech protection and say the legislation is unnecessary as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are already protected under existing state laws.
"This measure is about giving special rights based solely on sexual behavior," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "All of our citizens deserve equal justice under the law. Do we somehow care less about victims violently assaulted in the act of robbery or during a personal dispute than we do about those assaulted because they belong in a federally designated, politically motivated category?"
Perkins contends that the measure sets them on a slippery slope toward religious persecution.
The defense policy bill could be approved by the Senate as early as next week. If passed, the measure would authorize $5 million for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 for Justice Department grants of up to $100,000 to state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. President Barack Obama, who has expressed support for the hate crimes provision, has promised to sign it into law.