Proponents of an expanded hate crimes law say religious beliefs should be subject to scrutiny if they lead to violence. "Even the strongest proponents of religious freedom do not claim that religious liberty means the right to beat people up," says Prof. Andrew Koppelman of the Northwestern University School of Law.
Conservative religious activists, meanwhile, point to recent developments in Australia, Canada, and Sweden, where religious conservatives have been penalized for so-called hate speech, even where such speech did not lead to violence. But legal scholars note that those countries lack the robust free speech protections of the First Amendment. And even opponents of expanding the hate crimes law acknowledge that statutes widely adopted by individual states have not resulted in litigation over religious liberty or free speech violations—though many cover the LGBT community. "If somebody had been prosecuted simply for speech, we would have heard about it by now," says Laycock.
Religious conservatives say they'll continue their long-shot effort as part of a broader strategy to stymie the gay rights movement. "Homosexual groups are not going to be satisfied with hate crimes, so this is just a down payment for them from the Democrats," says Tom McClusky, vice president of Family Research Council Action. "Maybe 'don't ask, don't tell' will come next year." Gay rights advocates, of course, hope he's right.