By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A liberal coalition on Thursday started a campaign to label socially conservative organizations that oppose transgender rights as hate groups, ratcheting up the antagonism between opposing sides on one of America's most contentious debates.
The Eliminate Hate Campaign seeks to draw attention to groups it sees as extreme and hateful against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, accusing them of hiding behind ostensibly Christian or family values.
Alarmed by a surge in reported hate crimes tied to the 2016 presidential campaign, the campaign will pressure the media to use the hate-group designation for about 50 organizations in the United States, based on designations already made by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long monitored extremist groups.
It also will encourage the public to oppose extremism and seek to diminish the prestige of groups it believes spread fear and lies about LGBT people.
Conservatives have promised to dig in for a long fight in the debate over whether transgender people deserve legal protection against discrimination and the right to use the public bathrooms of their choice.
Several of the targeted groups said they reject any hate designation as an attempt to silence them.
They also see transgender advocates as out of step with the public even as celebrities and the Democratic Party champion the transgender cause.
Among those singled out by the liberal coalition was the Alliance Defending Freedom, a self-described religious freedom organization that has sought to halt the expansion of transgender rights by arguing before school boards and in court.
"ADF doesn't have time to respond to organizations who do nothing more than call names, create division and incite violence across the country in order to raise money," spokesman Greg Scott said in a statement.
Peter Sprigg, spokesman for the Family Research Council, another of the targeted groups, said gender identity should not be protected from discrimination.
"We believe that it's really not possible for a person to change their sex, that biological sex at birth is essentially immutable," Sprigg said.
The campaign is led by Media Matters For America and includes the National Center for Transgender Equality, The National LGBTQ Task Force, SoulForce, The Equality Federation, and The Matthew Shepard Foundation.
"I have seen first hand what can happen as a result of hate and how it feels to have the hate and discrimination that people face dismissed or denied," said Judy Shepard, president of the foundation and the mother of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager who was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Trott)