(CNSNews.com) - As the Senate prepares to vote on legislation that would expand the categories of "hate crimes," a group of civil rights leaders on Tuesday called opponents of the measure "right-wing fundamentalists" with "often-bigoted agendas."
A coalition of conservative Christians said at a press conference held the same day that the bill is "unjust" and "an attempt to take away the rights of Christians to speak out and express their freedom of speech."
"Our effort to expand the coverage of the federal hate crimes statute is based on issues of simple fairness, simple justice," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), said during a telephone news conference.
"We think that hate crime violence directed at individuals because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, religion or national origin fundamentally violates our understanding of what it means to be protected by the U.S. Constitution," he stated.
"We think that responding to that kind of violence by enacting a statute that seeks to provide states and localities with the resources they need to enforce the law -- and when they don't act, to allow the federal government to step in a limited number of appropriate cases -- is really, fundamentally, the right thing to do," Henderson added.
Participants in the conference call voiced support for the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was introduced on March 20 by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
However, given the full Senate calendar, Henderson urged that the measure be attached to the Department of Defense authorization bill rather than trying to get the Kennedy bill approved separately.
"I'm confident that if this bill is allowed to move forward as an amendment [to the Defense bill], we will have the 60 votes we need" to invoke cloture and bring the measure to a vote on the Senate floor, he said. "The real issue is whether there will be efforts [by opponents] to find other, creative ways of slowing down or delaying consideration of the bill."
Henderson voiced optimism that the move would ultimately succeed.
"We think that the issue of injustice and the problems associated with the kind of violence that we're trying to deal with in this bill will compel the American people ultimately to embrace what we're trying to do," he said.
Carlton Pearson, senior minister of the New Dimensions Worship Center in Tulsa, Okla., said he was taking part in the news conference because, "as a sacred activist, it's both worrisome and bothersome to me that some African-American preachers" oppose the bill and by doing so present their community as "a monolithic, homophobic church."
"I've met many of these preachers, and I know how right-wing fundamentalists are often motivating them" to accept "often-bigoted agendas," he said. "Their motivation is often either fear or money, or both, but it's not necessarily the love of God or the love of peace or people.
"I want to make it clear that there are many African-American preachers, as well as others, who love God and love people and who support this legislation and think it's one of the most sensitive, intelligent, delicate and important legislation that Congress can vote for," Pearson stated.
'Americans deserve better'
The Senate initiative parallels one in the House, where a Cybercast News Service previously reported, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act on March 20.
Conservatives responded by saying hate crimes legislation would essentially place homosexuals and lesbians in a protected class along with racial minorities, and could muzzle free speech.
Some Christian groups also expressed outrage when the full House vote on the measure was scheduled for May 3, the annual National Day of Prayer. The bill was approved by a vote of 237 to 180.
On Tuesday, members of several religious organizations rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol to protest what they called a "disturbing trend that seeks to criminalize Christianity in America."
"This so-called 'hate crimes' bill is an attempt to take away the rights of Christians to speak out and express their freedom of speech," said Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny). "This is unjust, and Americans deserve better than this from their elected officials."
"Those who hate God are working to criminalize those who love Him, and they are making great strides to see that it happens," declared Michael Marcavage, director of a group called Repent America. "We must not remain silent as our liberty to freely speak the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ is being threatened."
"No government official has the authority to determine our beliefs, regulate our faith or punish our thoughts," said the Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, founder and director of Elijah Ministries. "This is where every liberty-loving Christian should stand."
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