Representatives of African-American religious groups have asked the US Congress to block a new hate-crimes bill that would cover homophobic offences

They have called on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, to block the proposed new law, claiming it would impede their freedom to preach against homosexuality.

“Ex-gay” Christian group Exodus International also oppose the hate crimes bill.

“This bill will offer a status for gays, lesbians and transgender people under the equal protection status that can muzzle the black church,” Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church, told the Washington Post.

Last week the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

The legislation now makes its way to the floor of the United States House of Representatives for consideration by the full chamber.

Congressman Conyers is a sponsor of the bill and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He met with religious leaders last week to discuss their concerns.

The Rev. Marvin Winans, a Detroit preacher, met the Congressman.

“This is a specific bill, no matter how well intended, that will hurt America,” he told the Post.

Gay rights activists in the US said that African-Americans should understand discrimination better than anyone else, and drew a comparison with 1960s civil rights laws.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would strengthen the ability of law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

Under the current US federal law, enacted nearly 40 years ago, the government has the authority to help investigate and prosecute bias-motivated attacks based on race, colour, national origin and religion.

However, the federal government is not able to help in cases where women, gay, transgender or disabled Americans are victims of bias-motivated crimes for who they are.

The new legislation has been named after the murdered gay teenager who brought the issue of hate crimes into the American consciousness.

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