A Christian group in Michigan has filed a lawsuit alleging that a package of hate crimes laws named after murder victim Matthew Shepard is an affront to their religious freedom.

Far from the intended purpose of severely punishing criminals who commit unspeakable acts against a persecuted minority group, the religious activists claim the laws are a guarded effort to "eradicate" their beliefs.

Filed by the Thomas More Law Center -- which bills itself as the religious answer to the American Civil Liberties Union -- the complaint claims that protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people "is an effort to eradicate religious beliefs opposing the homosexual agenda from the marketplace of ideas by demonizing, vilifying, and criminalizing such beliefs as a matter of federal law and policy."

The suit was placed on behalf of American Family Association of Michigan president Gary Glenn, along with pastors Rene Ouellette, Levon Yuille and James Combs.

Claiming "there is no need" to extend hate crimes definitions, Thomas More chief counsel Richard Thompson attempted to minimize the impact of violent crimes against homosexuals.

"Of the 1.38 million violent crimes reported in the U.S. by the FBI in 2008, only 243 were considered as motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation," he wrote on the group's Web site. "The sole purpose of this law is to criminalize the Bible and use the threat of federal prosecutions and long jail sentences to silence Christians from expressing their Biblically-based religious belief that homosexual conduct is a sin."

However, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act clearly stipulates that it does not apply to constitutionally protected speech.

(3) CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit any constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct or activities (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), including the exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and peaceful picketing or demonstration. The Constitution does not protect speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence.

(4) FREE EXPRESSION- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to allow prosecution based solely upon an individual’s expression of racial, religious, political, or other beliefs or solely upon an individual’s membership in a group advocating or espousing such beliefs.

The Thomas More Law Center's argument is eerily similar to a fundraising letter circulated by the Family Research Council at the end of 2009, in which the conservative group claimed that extending workplace non-discrimination rules is really Obama's secret plot to "impose" homosexuality on America.

However, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "[the non-discrimination rule] exempts all religious organizations, which includes corporations, associations, and religious societies. In addition, all educational institutions are exempt if the educational institution is at least substantially controlled or owned by a religious organization or if the institution's curriculum is directed towards the propagation of a religion."

The Thomas More suit, however, goes even further than just challenging hate crimes protection for LGBT people; it challenges the findings of the Matthew Shepard investigation.

"Thomas More attorneys make the case that the perpetrators of the murder of Matthew Shepard were subject to more several criminal penalties under existing state criminal law than under the new federal Hate Crimes Act," religious news outlet Christian Post notes. "They also say there is evidence demonstrating that the senseless and brutal attack on Shepard was not motivated by hate or bias; rather, it was motivated by money and drugs."

Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old gay man from Wyoming who was tied to a fence and beaten to death in 1998. A foundation carrying his name played an important role in helping to broaden hate crimes definitions to cover LGBT people.

The Post's story, which does not point out that the actual law carries protections for constitutional speech, claims that plaintiffs are merely seeking "judicial reassurance" that they can continue to disparage homosexuals "without being investigated or prosecuted by the government."

Writer Timothy Kincaid, blogging for the Box Turtle Bulletin, could hardly contain his sarcasm.

"[Because] the law has no effect on their rights to belief or expression of belief, the only logical conclusion is that these four Christians wish to plan for, conspire to commit, or commit an act of violence," he opined.

"Or, perhaps, this is just another example of folks who think that because 'homosexual acts, according to Scripture, are acts of grave depravity that are intrinsically disordered and are contrary to the natural law' then their religion trumps civil law."

President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The Thomas More lawsuit, filed in a U.S. district court in Michigan, names Attorney General Eric Holder as a defendant.

Read the 27-page Thomas More complaint (PDF link).

This version corrects the spelling of the Thomas More Law Center.