WASHINGTON (CNN) - The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on expanding federal protection against hate crimes to disability, gender, and sexual orientation.
The proposal is one of the most sensitive civil rights issues to come before the Congress in years. Currently, federal law covers only a person's race, religion, or national origin.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would also expand federal protection against hate crimes to acts committed under any circumstance, as opposed to acts committed only when an individual is engaged in certain federally-designated activities such as voting.
Known as the Matthew Shepard Act, the measure would allow the Attorney General to issue grants to cities and states for the purpose of investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who died in 1998 after being attacked because of his sexual orientation.
The bill has received support from a range of civil rights and law enforcement groups, who argue that is a necessary addition to civil rights protections first issued over forty years ago.
Most "Americans regardless of their race, religion or political affiliation support this legislation," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a written statement.
"They understand that the time to get this legislation to the president's desk is long overdue. ... Local jurisdictions continue to need the additional resources necessary to prosecute the hate violence that spreads fear and panic throughout entire communities."
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, argued that the legislation is necessary "because hate crimes are such a unique offense. They are an attack not just on individuals but an attempt to terrorize and demoralize entire communities."
Some leading religious conservatives, however, have come out in opposition to the bill, arguing that it could be used to infringe on an individual's freedom of speech.
Traditional Values Coalition Chairman Rev. Louis Sheldon said in a written statement that the bill would ensure "open season on pastors and churchgoers." He argued that a pastor could be theoretically charged with conspiracy to commit a hate crime if an individual heard that pastor's sermon and then acted "aggressively" against someone based on his or her sexual orientation.