(CNSNews.com) - Leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have scheduled a vote on a "hate crimes" bill for Thursday, which is also the National Day of Prayer. One conservative group called this an example of "in your face" politics against Christians in America - a charge strongly denied by the Democrats.
"There will be no shortage of things to pray for on this National Day of Prayer as the Congress takes a dark first step toward criminalizing public statements of sincerely held religious beliefs," Rev. Louis Sheldon, founder and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said in a news release.
"Homosexual extremists and their allies in the Congress have set out to rub the noses of religious citizens in their so-called hate crimes legislation, which repeals the rights of Christians to exercise their religion freely and in public," Sheldon stated.
Sheldon's comments refer to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), which would "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."
Conservative Christian activists worry that the measure would give individuals who engage in homosexual behavior ("sexual orientation") or cross dressers ("gender identity") preferential treatment over other citizens by elevating them to a specially protected class.
"This so-called hate crimes 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," Sheldon said.
TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty called the measure - which was introduced on March 20 by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) - "deeply offensive to people of faith across America."
"No-one can tell me that the 'original intent' of America's founders was to have the free exercise of religion regulated by secularists and their cohorts in the liberal and homosexual movements," Lafferty stated.
"This is the beginning of a dark and dangerous period for religious Americans who now face the specter of privatized religious expression and secretive home churches," she added.
Stacey Bernards, press secretary for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), called the TVC's claim "baseless and inflammatory" and said the organization "doesn't have any evidence" to back up the charge of deliberately timing the vote for National Day of Prayer, "because it's not true."
"This was just the best time for the measure to move forward through the legislative process" since the House Judiciary Committee last week passed it in a 23-17 party-line vote, Bernards said.
Nevertheless, TVC spokesman Jim Lafferty told Cybercast News Service that his group considers the Democratic leaders' efforts to be "very calculated and very much on purpose," such as imposing a "no amendment" rule Wednesday before debate in the full chamber has even begun.
"We think that the leadership in the House has put this on a fast track [in an effort] to energize part of their base," Lafferty stated. But "the heat they're starting to receive from church people and pastors throughout the country has caused them to back off somewhat." Still, he expects the measure "to sail through the House."
Some religious leaders were not offended by the scheduling of the vote, regardless of the reason. Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) - who supports H.R. 1592 - told Cybercast News Service that holding the vote on a day of prayer "doesn't bother me."
"We should always be at prayer for anyone who's a victim of hate," she said.
The conservative group Concerned Women for America (CWA) is already looking beyond Thursday and is asking President Bush to veto the legislation if it is passed by Congress.
"Justice should be blind," CWA President Wendy Wright said in a news release. She said the assailants of Matthew Shepard - a homosexual youth who was killed in 1998 - should receive the same sentence as the killer of Mary Stachowicz, "a grandmother who was brutally murdered by a homosexual man [in Chicago in 2002]."
"Victims are - and should be - treated equally in the justice system, regardless of their 'sexual orientation,'" Wright added. "We cannot imagine that President Bush would sign a bill that would create a two-tiered justice system that discriminates against grandmothers."
Other Christian groups opposing the bill include the Family Research Council and the High Impact Leadership Coalition.
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