HARRISBURG - An expansion of Pennsylvania's hate-crimes law to cover gays and the disabled has been nullified by a state court, which found that the legislature unlawfully used an agricultural-crime bill to make the changes.

Commonwealth Court's 4-1 ruling yesterday handed a victory to the conservative Christian group Repent America, which filed a lawsuit in 2005 challenging the amendment of the state hate-crimes law in 2002.

Among the plaintiffs was Repent America founder and leader Michael Marcavage of Lansdowne, who was one of the organization's members arrested in fall 2004 for picketing Outfest, a Center City gay-pride festival, and evangelizing that homosexuality is a sin.

They were acquitted of ethnic intimidation - Pennsylvania's version of a hate-crimes law - and other charges, but they feared they would be charged with the same crime if they staged similar protests in the future, Marcavage said yesterday.

Marcavage and six other group members argued that the amendment was passed unconstitutionally because it replaced language in a bill that dealt with agricultural vandalism and crop destruction.

"We believe that the legislature in Pennsylvania did not have the proper opportunity to review what was being passed," Marcavage said.

Judge James Gardner Colins wrote in the majority opinion that the final legislation bore no resemblance to the original bill by the time it was signed into law by then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, though both versions dealt with crime.

"We emphasize that no matter how salutary the purpose of a bill may be, it still must comport with constitutionally mandated requirements for passage," Colins wrote.

President Judge Bonnie Leadbetter dissented, but did not issue an opinion.

Stacey Sobel, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, which advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said the issue was not a new one when the legislature voted on it in 2002.

"There have been bills pending for years, and they chose to support it because it was needed," Sobel said.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, which represents Gov. Rendell's administration in the lawsuit, said that the office was reviewing the decision and had 30 days to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Rendell said in a statement that the bill passed with bipartisan support and he urged lawmakers to immediately approve "appropriate legislation" reinstating the measure.

"It's important to note that the Commonwealth Court's decision was based on a procedural issue and not on the substance of the amendment," Rendell said. "It's also important to note that this legal challenge was mounted by individuals who themselves may benefit from the law's protections for religious minorities."