Christian conservative groups will be keeping a close watch over how new hate crimes legislation will be enforced after President Obama signed it into law Wednesday.
"Although we don't know the full ramifications of this bill as of yet, my staff and I will be watching closely for any possible infringement on the rights of our members and pastors to speak out against the sin of homosexuality based on the Word of God," said Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, in a statement.
Like Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, Kieschnick said he doesn't believe there will be "immediate" prosecution of pastors and churches for teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful, but the threat to free speech is "nonetheless real."
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed by Congress last week, adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the list of federal hate crimes and allows the federal government more room to intervene in investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The bill, tucked inside the $680 billion defense spending bill, was named after Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was kidnapped and beaten to death in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas in 1998.
President Obama, with the mother of Matthew Shepard and the sister of James Byrd, Jr. at his side, signed the act into law Wednesday at the White House.
In his remarks at the reception, Obama said hate crimes are not only about physical harm, but they "break spirits" and "instill fear."
"[N]o one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love," Obama declared.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, calls the hate crimes law the "nation's first major piece of civil rights legislation" for LGBT.
Though supporters hail the signing of the hate crimes bill an advancement in U.S. civil rights, opponents fear the law will be used to restrict the free speech of pastors and Christians who say that homosexuality is a sin.
Critics contend that pastors can be unfairly linked to a hate crime if they preach homosexuality as sin and someone who hears the sermon later harms another because of their sexual orientation.
"ADF has clearly seen the evidence of where 'hate crimes' legislation leads when it has been tried around the world: It paves the way for the criminalization of speech that is not deemed 'politically correct,'" warned Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defense Fund. "'Hate crimes' laws fly in the face of the underlying purpose of the First Amendment, which was designed specifically to protect unpopular speech."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins also criticized the hate crimes bill as a threat to the free speech of Americans, saying that the hate crimes law lays a legal foundation and framework for "investigating, prosecuting and prosecuting" pastors and Christian business owners "whose actions reflect their faith."
But not all Christian groups are opposed to the hate crimes law. The United Methodist General Board of Church & Society said it "celebrates" the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which the church body believes will "ensure public safety and equal protection under the law from hate crimes."
The agency further contends that the legislation will protect free speech and religious liberty.
"We celebrate passage of this legislation with millions of Americans who believe that we are all created equal in the image of God, and with the rest of the civil rights community who have worked so hard for its passage," UMC's GBCS stated.
It took more than a decade of efforts for sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the hate crimes list, which originally included race, religion, color and national origin. Though Democrats had favored the measure, Republicans had blocked the amendment from passing in the past. Former President George W. Bush had vetoed the defense bill when the hate crimes bill was attached to it during his administration.
Gay rights group are now pressing President Obama to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans gays from openly serving in the military, and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines legal marriage as between a man and a woman.
Obama has previously announced his intention to repeal both.