The U.S. House of Representatives passed an expanded hate crimes bill on Wednesday that opponents say could eventually lead to the criminalization of pastors who preach homosexuality as sin.
"[T]he 'Hate Crimes' bill ... will result in homosexuals and transgenders being protected under a special class under the federal hate crimes law," noted the Christian Coalition of America after the passing of H.R. 1913.
"Pastors have been thrown in jail because of similar laws in Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom just because they have preached the Bible on homosexuality," the conservative group added.
But supporters of the bill, which passed 249-175, have rejected the idea that it could criminalize pastors, insisting that the first amendment protects their right to free speech.
They also note that hate crimes against sexual orientation are the third most frequent, behind race and religion and ahead of ethnicity or national origin – three groups covered under current federal law. The expanded hate crimes bill seeks to add violence against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability to the list of federal hate crimes.
"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."
Opponents of the bill, however, insist that the bill is unnecessary as gay, transgender and bisexual people are already protected under existing state laws. They also see its passage as one step on "a slippery slope toward religious persecution."
"These laws are already being employed as a tool in Brazil, Europe, Canada – and even right here in America – to intimidate and silence people who honor natural human sexuality and who value the sanctity of marriage as between one man and one woman," stated Concerned Women of America.
"If a person speaks out against various sexual behaviors, that person may be accused of 'hate speech,' which could lead to an accusation of associations with 'hate crimes,'" the conservative group argued.
The bill is now headed for the Senate, which Obama urged to work with his administration to "finalize this bill and to take swift action."
On Tuesday, the 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."