Clergy members from all 50 states gathered on Capitol Hill yesterday to support expanding hate-crime laws to protect homosexuals.
"It is morally wrong to deprive anyone of the means to feed themselves and care for their families," said Bishop Carlton Pearson of the New Dimensions Worship Center in Tulsa, Okla. "Passage of this bill will help gay, lesbian and transgender people in 33 states where you can be fired for simply being gay."
The measure, similar to three versions that have failed in the past decade, calls for charging the Justice Department with investigating crimes potentially motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity as it does for crimes considered racially or religiously motivated.
Supporters of the bill, named the Matthew Shepard Act after a homosexual college student killed in Wyoming, say a Democrat-controlled Congress makes it more likely that the legislation will reach President Bush, who has not said whether he would veto such legislation.
"It's on a very fast track," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a group opposed to the legislation.
Mr. Sheldon says he thinks people and organizations that oppose homosexuality would be unfairly targeted by the Justice Department if complaints were filed against them strictly based on political and philosophical differences.
"This bill begins to lay the legal foundation and framework to investigate, prosecute and persecute pastors, business owners, and anyone else whose actions are based upon, and reflect, the truths found in the Bible," he said.
Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican who sponsored the Senate bill, disagreed, saying it is not designed to curtail freedom of speech.
"Unless they believe part of their religion is the practice of violence against others, they should not be affected by this bill," Mr. Smith told the Associated Press last week. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, co-sponsored the measure.
Reps. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, and Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, have introduced the House version, which could make it to the floor for a full vote by early next month.
More than 200 organizations have attached their support to the legislation, including some of the nation's more prominent lobbying organizations such as the AFL-CIO, American Medial Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
According to the most recent FBI statistics, there were 1,171 reported hate crimes targeting homosexuals in 2005, or 14 percent of all hate crimes reported that year.