Less than a week after the House passed an expansion of federal hate crime laws, gay rights activists are upping the pressure on lawmakers to enact the first of several pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bills.
To press the point, the Human Rights Campaign is blanketing Capitol Hill on Monday and Tuesday with a Clergy Call for Justice and Equality, bringing in more than 300 clergy from all 50 states to lobby on LGBT issues.
We never take any vote for granted and always go back and work with our friends and swing [votes] of both parties, said Allison Herwitt, legislative director at the HRC.
Were very confident and optimistic [that] when the Senate moves to take up the bill, it will be passed, she added.
Gay rights activists have been pushing Congress to broaden the definitions of hate crimes to include attacks based on a victims sexual orientation, gender identity, or mental or physical disabilities.
Federal hate crime laws carry greater penalties than state hate crime laws.
The current law limits federal jurisdiction over hate crimes to crimes based on race, color, religion and national origin.
This bill would also authorize the attorney general to provide technical and prosecutorial assistance for violent crimes covered under the federal hate crimes umbrella.
Conservatives have argued that the expansion of the hate crime provision could threaten the free speech of ministers who recite Biblical passages that condemn homosexuality.
The HRC is trying to fight that argument by bringing in faith leaders to talk to lawmakers.
Certainly we do want to debunk the myths that are out there that the hate crime bill in particular somehow criminalizes speech in the pulpit, said Harry Knox, director of religion and faith programs at the HRC. It is simply not true.
The people saying that it is know that it is not, and they are telling lies to deflect the conversation, he added.
The bill, which has been brought up in Congress eight times, has been a rallying point for gay activists since Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was murdered in 1998.
The bill passed the House on April 29, 249-175.
While it is unclear when the Senate will take up the bill, the Obama administration has been supportive of the legislation.
The Traditional Values Coalition, which has lobbied vigorously against the bill, is mounting its own campaign to try to stop the legislation.
TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty said she had heard from hundreds of people incensed about the issue.
Lafferty met Friday with hundreds of key religious leaders to discuss the issue and despite losing the vote, she said they are pleased with the debate.
We think it really advanced the discussion, Lafferty said.
The TVC will be ramping up its own grass-roots network in the coming weeks, asking members to put in calls to lawmakers.
What the other side is trying to do is keep their cards so close that we are unable to mobilize our people, Lafferty said. They can trot out 300 people that doesnt really matter. I could match that without a problem.
Conservative legal scholars have also argued against the bill, noting that a suspect in a crime could be retried in federal court.
I think its a very bad idea because it essentially is an end run against double jeopardy, said Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
This is just the first of several LGBT issues that the HRC is hoping Congress will take on.
The HRC would like Congress to expand the Employment Non-discrimination Act to include LGBT and broaden the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act to give domestic partners of federal civilian employees the same rights as married couples.
Pro-LGBT legislation is in the best place its been in more than a decade, Herwitt said.
Still, Herwitt and the HRC will have their hands full as conservatives try to thwart any forward movement by the LGBT community.
They need to be careful not to overreach and overreach too quickly, Lafferty said. The hand that overreaches gets slapped quickly.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.