Hate Crimes Legislation Advances, But its Future is Uncertain

Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican - St. George)
Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George)

A bill that would beef up Utah’s hate crimes law passed on second reading in the Senate Friday with a vote of 17-12.

SB 107 – Hate Crimes Amendments, sponsored by Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George), expands the definition of a hate crime to include a criminal offense against a person or property committed in whole or in part due to the victim’s ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation. The bill would also allow prosecutors to increase felony and misdemeanor criminal charges for bias-motivated attacks by one level.

A companion resolution, SJR 13 – Joint Resolution Amending Rules of Evidence, protects free speech by saying that prosecutors will be unable to use a defendant’s expressions or associations as evidence unless it specifically relates to the alleged hate crime being charged. The resolution passed unanimously.

The sponsor made an impassioned speech urging lawmakers to consider his bill. “This is an important law to signal that we’re going to recognize just as our founders recognized that there are certain things that as human beings they do threaten to divide us. They do make certain folks, and that would be all of us at times, targets of crime, targets of certain actions,” said Urquhart. “Help Utah lift her lamp. Help Utah lead. Help Utah shine with liberty and justice for all.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, both Democrats, sat beside Urquhart on the Senate floor to lend their support as lawmakers debated the bill.

Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) questioned the need to define certain groups and leave out others. He noted that if he were attacked because he was obese, wearing Brigham Young University colors, or because he’s a fan of entertainers Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, he would not be protected under the proposed hate crimes law.

“How is that equal? Because to me, it smacks as if it’s a special status, it’s an elevated status more important than obese people, more important than BYU fans, more important than fill-in-the-blank because if you attack me because I’m transgender now there’s an elevated right, a special right where there should be a penalty enhancement,” said Weiler.

Urquhart said the classifications acknowledge that some groups are more at-risk than others. “The reality is that certain groups are attacked because they belong to that group, whether it’s black, whether it’s white, whether it’s Mormon, whether it’s Jewish.”

He told the body that Utah’s current hate crimes statute, originally passed in 1992, is insufficient. “We do not have hate crimes legislation on the books. We can call a football a duck; it’s still a football,” said Urquhart. “[The hate crimes law] is toothless. That is why we have never had a successful prosecution for hate crimes in the state of Utah.”

“What’s wrong with the categories that we’ve had since 1992?,” asked Weiler. “That is the discussion we’re having, strengthening the hate crimes legislation. This is 2016, not 1992. That is the quest of America; we’re forever hungry for liberty. We will forever, I hope, extend liberty to populations in need of it,” Urquhart responded. “There have been horrendous crimes in the nation against folks just because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It was a different world in 1992. It’s deplorable that in 1992 we might have thought that was acceptable. It is absolutely unacceptable that in 2016 someone can target someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and we would not give that an enhanced penalty.”

Senator Daniel Thatcher (Republican – West Valley City) said that the bill doesn’t provide special treatment for minority groups. “This has everything to do with recognizing that some people are just a little more dangerous. This isn’t about minorities; this is about people.”

Recounting the persecution endured by early followers of the LDS Church, Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) asked everyone to reflect on those incidents. “Is it just rape and murder and arson or was this sent for a much broader message? That’s what hate crimes do,” said Dabakis. “They are a separate crime. They matter. As you think, was this a hate crime or was this just another crime? That’s what we’re protecting. That’s what we’re talking about. The message that goes forward to everybody in a community where these kinds of things are just treated as another crime, they’re not.”

The bill hit a major roadblock earlier this month when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement urging lawmakers not to disturb the balance between religious freedom and gay rights that was achieved when the Legislature passed a landmark non-discrimination bill in 2015.

“This is an important issue, and it’s important that we say as a state that it is not permissible to target a community. It is not permissible to target race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” Urquhart concluded.

SB 107 is expected to come up for a final vote as early as Monday. It faces an uphill battle, as some Senators noted that their yes votes were subject to change during the thrid and final vote.

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