A hate crime, as defined by the National Crime Victim Survey in 1999, is “a criminal offense … committed on the basis of a person’s race, color, religion or national origin when engaging in a federally protected activity.”

On Oct. 28, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. We can now add sexual orientation and gender identity to race, color, religion or national origin to the list of offenses.

Catholics know all about hate crimes and discrimination, of course. In fact, if you were a Catholic in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States, you were the principal target of the hate-filled violence and discrimination wielded by powerful organizations like the Know-Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan. It was in that climate that Father Michael McGivney was inspired to found the Knights of Columbus.

The Church has always preached love and charity. St. John urged in his First Letter, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (3:18), and wrote, “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love” (4:8).

So it comes as no surprise that, even as the Church continues to repeat that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life” (Catechism, No. 2357), it tells us in the same breath that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (No. 2358).

Most Americans seem to agree. A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that Americans oppose same-sex “marriage” by 54% to 34%, although they support same-sex civil unions. Another poll, published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2001, showed that Americans favor laws to protect homosexual persons specifically, from job discrimination (76%), housing discrimination (74%) and inheritance rights (70%).

In signing the latest civil-rights legislation into law, Obama has officially extended civil rights to include a group of persons based not on the color of their skin or national origin, but on behavior.

The legislation is named for Matthew Shepard, a homosexual man who was beaten to death by two men in 1998 because he was homosexual, and for James Byrd Jr., a black man who was brutally murdered in 1998 by three white supremacists because he was black. We should all be outraged over these hideous crimes.

But let’s look at where the law is likely to lead.

Will Shepard/Byrd be wielded to silence the Orthodox Jewish rabbi who condemns homosexual relations by quoting Leviticus?

Will it be used in prosecuting those Christians who protest outside pornography businesses that deal in same-sex smut?

Will it be used to jail a Catholic bishop who quotes Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body in extolling the gifts of traditional marriage because homosexual-rights activists claim they feel threatened by it?

Are we going the way of Canada, where journalist Mark Steyn was prosecuted for writing an article critical of Islam, and where a Knights of Columbus chapter was prosecuted for refusing to allow its facilities to be used for a same-sex “marriage” ceremony?

That’s why Shepard/Byrd died in committee the first four times it was proposed in Congress, beginning in 2001: The fine print is unsettling.

Back in May, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said that the legislation would have a “chilling effect on religious speech.”

In an open letter to bill sponsors Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Patrick Leahy, D-N.H., Donohue wrote, “To be specific, the bill would criminalize religious speech that was critical of homosexuality if it were linked to a crime against a gay person. How do I know this? Because when the bill was considered in the House, that is exactly what Rep. Louie Gohmert [R-Texas] was told when he raised this issue. … The prospect of criminalizing religious speech that proscribes certain sexual practices is beyond worrisome — it is downright dangerous.”

And as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver told the Register’s Joan Frawley Desmond in May, “Violence against any group of people simply because they’re different is evil. So in an immediate sense, this probably shouldn’t worry Catholics.”

“But I do think the legislation should make Christians very alert,” he added. “This is a clear example of the law being used not merely to require or proscribe certain behaviors, but to ‘teach’ the special gravity of certain kinds of crime.”

It remains to be seen what direction events in the United States will take, but this legislation represents another disturbing sign of the current administration’s persistent effort to redefine moral norms, giving more weight to feelings, thoughts and sexual impulse than values, ethics and truth — the “dictatorship of relativism” Pope Benedict XVI so forcefully warns us against.

So no one rejoices more than the Church on seeing No. 2358 from the Catechism enacted into federal law. But she knows well that the entire country will suffer if that same provision is used as a club to beat into submission those who uphold No. 2357.

The Church isn’t guilty of “hate crimes” when she teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. She is “guilty” of true authentic love: loving God’s children so much that she tirelessly preaches the truth about the human condition, time and time again, no matter what direction the prevailing winds may blow.

Catholics must remain vigilant to protect our constitutionally protected right to preach the truth in love.