Religious leaders from all of America’s 50 states rallied on Capitol Hill yesterday in support of legislation to give homosexuals greater protection under existing hate-crime laws.

The bill in question, which has been named the Matthew Shepard Act in memory of the gay college student killed in Wyoming in 1998, will afford the Justice Department with greater powers to investigate crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Passage of this bill will help gay, lesbian and transgender people in 33 states where you can be fired for simply being gay,” said Bishop Carlton Pearson of the New Dimensions Worship Center in Tulsa, Okla, according to The Washington Times.

Given that the Democrats have control of Congress the Bill is widely expected reach President Bush who has not explictly said he would veto such legislation.

Some conservative groups opposed to the legislation have expressed concern about the bill.

“It’s on a very fast track,” warned Reverend Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, according to The Washington Times

“This bill begins to lay the legal foundation and framework to investigate, prosecute and persecute pastors, business owners, and anyone else whose actions are based upon, and reflect, the truths found in the Bible.”

But Senator Gordon Smith who co-sponsored the bill with Senator Edward Kennedy stressed that the legislation was not designed to impose upon people’s freedom of speech.

“Unless they believe part of their religion is the practice of violence against others, they should not be affected by this bill,” he told The Washington Times

The legislation was first proposed by President Clinton in 1999 but failed to pass through a hostile Republican Congress in 1999. Attempts to reintroduce the legislation in the following year also failed.

A house version of The Matthew Shepard Act was introduced as bipartisan legislation at congress last week. Matthew’s parents were both present.

“I can’t think of a better way to honour Matthew’s memory. He was a 21-year-old college student just living his life,” said Shepard’s mother Judy Shepard, who now runs a foundation named after her son which campaigns on gay issues.

Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in freezing Wyoming in 1998.

He was the victim of a hate crime, targeted because he was gay, and his story has inspired Senators from both sides to try to bring forward new laws.