Conservative groups and lawmakers are firing back at the Southern Poverty Law Center for releasing a new report labeling some mainstream conservative organizations as "hate groups" for their opposition to gay marriage.
In its latest report, the center added 18 "anti-gay groups" to its list of active hate organizations, including Concerned Women for America, the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage.
They join the center's list of more than 900 hate groups, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and black separatists like the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.
"Even as some well-known anti-gay groups like Focus on the Family moderate their views, a hard core of smaller groups, most of them religiously motivated, have continued to pump out demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities," the report reads. "These groups' influence reaches far beyond what their size would suggest, because the 'facts' they disseminate about homosexuality are often amplified by certain politicians, other groups and even news organizations."
Outraged conservatives, led by the Family Research Council, have launched an online petition called "start debating, stop hating," which was published as a full page advertisement in the print editions of Politico and the Washington Examiner.
"Tell the radical Left it is time to stop spreading hateful rhetoric attacking individuals and organizations merely for expressing ideas with which they disagree," the petition reads. "Our debates can and must remain civil – but they must never be suppressed through personal assaults that aim only to malign an opponent's character."
More than 150 leaders have signed the petition, including incoming House Speaker John Boehner, Republican South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and 20 other members of Congress as well as potential GOP presidential candidates Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty.
The petition criticizes the SPLC for attacking groups "that uphold Judeo-Christian moral views" by labeling them hate groups without debate.
But SLPC begs to differ.
"The bottom line is it's simply not true that we attacked them because of their Judeo-Christian beliefs or their opposition to gay marriage," SPLC spokesman Booth Gunter told FoxNews.com. "It's because of their continued propagation of falsehoods about gay men and lesbians that have the effect of demonizing them."
Mark Potok, the center's director of intelligence project, responded further in a blog post on the center's website, calling the petition a "remarkable performance, given that it was precisely the maligning of entire groups of people – gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people – that caused the SPLC to list groups like the FRC."
Potok also disputed the accusation that there's been no debate, noting that he debated Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, on an episode of MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."
"At the end of the day, it's hard to know if the politicians and other leaders who signed today's anti-SPLC statement really know some of the things the groups they are throwing in with support," Potok said. "What's fact is that, despite their claims, the groups have so far, without exception, failed to confront the facts of SPLC's report."
The Family Research Council did not respond to a request for further comment. But Perkins declared to Fox News earlier this month that his organization is not anti-gay.
"What this boils down to is that the left is losing the debate over public policy in the direction of this nation as evidenced in the election last month," he said, referring to Republicans capturing the House and gaining six additional seats in the Senate.
"So what they want to do is shut down all debate over issues," he said, noting that voters in 31 states have rejected laws allowing gay marriage. "They can't win in this debate so they want to throw out labels."
"If the left thinks by throwing a few labels that they're going to see a white flag out in front of our office here in D.C., they're mistaken," he added. "We may run but it'll be in the opposite direction they want."