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Leaders of conservative Christian groups are wringing their hands over pending approval of a federal hate crimes bill, but opinions are divided on whether their fears are justified.

More than a decade since Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old Wyoming college student, was murdered, Democrats may pass a bill in his name that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of federally prosecuted hate crimes. The House passed the legislation 249-175 in late April, and the Senate could vote on a nearly identical bill as early as today.

Opponents envision a world where pastors could be arrested for preaching against homosexuality. But supporters say the bill does plenty to protect the freedoms of speech and religion.

The disputes center on a section of the bill that purports to guard constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct, and activities. Protected activities include "the exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and peaceful picketing or demonstration," according to the legislation. The bill also states that no one can be prosecuted solely for expressing racial, religious, political, or other beliefs.

However, the bill adds that "speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence" is not constitutionally protected. That sentence is alarming to conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, who say the law would severely hamper Christians' freedom to address homosexuality in sermons, radio programs, and other public venues.

Ashley Horne, a federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family, said that if passed, the law could expose pastors to federal prosecution if an attendee of their church ...

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July 2009

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