(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. House of Representatives Thursday passed a bill that would extend "hate crimes" protection to homosexuals and other specified groups, but religious leaders were already praising the White House for issuing a threat to veto the bill if it passes.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (read the bill) was passed by a 237-180 vote. The legislation seeks to provide federal assistance to local law enforcement in prosecuting hate crimes and adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the list of hate crime victims along with religion, national origin, gender and race.
"[T]he administration believes that H.R. 1592 is unnecessary and constitutionally questionable," the White House said in a statement. "If H.R. 1592 were presented to the president, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."
The White House pointed out that "almost every state in the country can actively prosecute hate crimes under the state's own hate crimes law." It did not address concerns raised by religious leaders who fear that the law would have a chilling effect on their right to preach Biblical teachings, including opposition to homosexuality.
"It can bring about a criminalization of our message," Bishop Harry Jackson, president of the High Impact Leadership Conference, told a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol earlier Thursday.
He joined with African-American church leaders from across the country to oppose the bill and pledged to "speak out in this season and make our voices heard."
Jackson said the bill threatens religious leaders' right to preach against homosexuality by including sexual orientation and gender identity as characteristics that can be subjected to hate. "It only takes one or two persons [to be prosecuted] for there to be a cooling off," Jackson said of the feared effects of the legislation.
He also said the inclusion of sexuality is insulting to blacks, because original hate crimes legislation aimed at protecting people who were attacked because of their race, while new legislation would include a characteristic he believes is a chosen behavior.
Jackson praised the White House's opposition to the bill. "We expect the president of the United States to veto this legislation, and we're going to literally go out and raise an army of political support to encourage him to do that," he said.
Tom McCluskey, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, told Cybercast News Service that his group is "pleased" by the veto threat. "We wish it was more strongly worded ... but we're glad he's on the same page."
"Hopefully this will send a message to the Senate," McCluskey said, noting that the Senate must also approve the legislation before it would reach Bush's desk.
The legislation's opponents are confident it will not become law. Matt Barber, Policy Director for Cultural Issues at the Concerned Women for America, told Cybercast News Service, "We have no reason to believe that he will go against his advisors."
For his part, Jackson said the wording of the veto threat was not concerning and that "this is a case where the president is taking great leadership for the nation."
"We are very, very much going to encourage people around the country to support the president's abhorrence of this bill," Jackson told Cybercast News Service. "I think this is just a matter of us catching up with what's going on and I think all will be well."
Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, called the veto threat a "very strong statement about how unnecessary this bill is" and said he has "no concerns" about the wording of the statement.
Democratic leaders Thursday pushed the legislation to the House floor, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it an "opportunity today to make America more American."
"You or your pastor might not agree with homosexuals," Rep. Jan. Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said on the House floor, "but surely you don't believe that's a reason for them to be assaulted." She said the bill "is not about thought, this is not about speech, this is about violence."
If the bill passes the Senate and the president decides to veto it, it would mark only the third time in his presidency that Bush has vetoed legislation.
The first came in July 2006 when Bush vetoed legislation that would have opened federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. On Tuesday Bush issued his second veto when he rejected a war funding bill that would have required a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
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