WASHINGTON -- On Thursday, senators approved the most sweeping expansion of federal hate crimes protections since the original law was enacted during the Civil Rights Movement.
It is an alarming reality for Christians who fear the law will have a chilling affect on religious speech against homosexuality.
In a strategic move, senators attached the legislation to an important defense bill. It adds gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender Americans to the classes of race and religion that already enjoy special federal protections.
"It's wrong [when] one person attacks another person on the street for sure," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "But it has a different meaning when violence occurs because a victim is a different race, religion or sexual orientation."
Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council says it's important to continue to oppose the hate crimes bill and what it represents. Click play for his explanation. Also, watch comments here from Craig Parshall of the National Religious Broadcasters on why he calls the legislation "bad policy" for America.
To contact your representative and senator about the hate crimes bill, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for your senators' and/or representative's office.
Supporters said gays and lesbians are victimized nearly six times more than average citizens. But many Christians fear the law will only criminalize religiously-held beliefs against homosexuality.
"Will this amendment serve as a warning to people not to speak out too loudly about their religious views lest the federal law enforcement come knocking at their door?" Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said.
Supporters said religious speech is already protected by the Constitution and the hate crimes law will not interfere with that guaranteed right. But words like "intimidate" and "threat of force" in the law have many Christians worried.
"You know, this bill is very dangerous," said Ashley Horne, federal issues analyst for Focus on the Family Action. "We're seriously concerned this will end up prosecuting pastors for hate speech or something they might say from the pulpits."
Speaking to the NAACP Thursday evening, President Barack Obama compared the gay rights struggle to that of African Americans.
"But make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America by African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender," he said. "By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."
President Obama supports the hate crimes legislation.
Republican amendments to the bill could still be considered before the final version is sent to his desk.