Senate sets hearing on hate crimes legislation; lobbyist says it’s ‘not a gay bill’

ST. GEORGE — A bill aimed at stiffening penalties for persons convicted of hate crimes as introduced to the Senate in January will come before the Utah Senate for hearing Friday. The bill, Hate Crimes Amendments sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, proposes changes to existing law that would add criteria to hate crimes definitions, add information required when reporting such a crime and add enhancements to the crimes and penalties.

A second bill, also sponsored by Urquhart, proposes amendments to the Utah rules of evidence to protect the free speech rights of a person accused of hate crimes except as such expression relates specifically to the crime charged or is introduced for purposes of impeachment – i.e. to challenge the credibility of a witness.

Max and Rusty’s story

In December 2014 Maxwell Christen and Rusty Andrade were attacked outside their homes in Salt Lake City after returning from a night out at one of Salt Lake City’s gay bars, said Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah, a political advocacy group whose mission is to secure equal rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Utahns and their families.

In part, Christen and Andrade’s experience inspired the pending legislation.

The Hate Crimes Amendments bill, SB 107, is backed by an Equality Utah-led coalition that includes several religious groups, individuals and ethnic groups.

The two men were called a series of gay slurs during the 2014 incident; Andrade was knocked to the ground and Christen was put in a headlock before also being sent to the ground, Williams said. Though the police investigated, the case is still open and no charges have been filed.

Andrade and Christen’s story is not uncommon.

Utah has three existing hate crimes laws on the books. Information from the Coalition for a Safe Utah lists the first two passed in 1992, The Hate Crimes Statistics Act and The Hate Crimes Penalties Act, and the third passed in 2006, Criminal Penalty Amendments.

Williams said that while those laws exist, the hate crimes laws have rarely, if ever, convicted a single offender.

That is not to say that bias or prejudice-motivated crimes are few in Utah. Statistics from the Coalition for a Safe Utah identify 1,279 hate crimes reported by law enforcement agencies over the past 20 years.

That is 1,279 too many such crimes for Williams and others who believe that the current laws need to be strengthened to ensure justice is served not only for the victims but their communities. And though Andrade and Christen’s story may have acted as a catalyst, Williams said the effects of hate crimes reach beyond the LGBTQ community.

“This is not a gay bill,” he said.

Further information from the Coalition for a Safe Utah seems to back up Williams’ statement. Of the over 1,000 reported hate crimes 48 percent of the victims were targeted because of their race, 20 percent because of their religion, 17 percent because of their ethnicity, 15 percent because of their sexual orientation and 1 percent because of a disability.

Urquhart, the bills’ chief sponsor, said he wasn’t always on board with legislation specific to hate crimes but has since grown to understand how a hate crime differs from another crime.

“I thought a crime was a crime,” Urquhart said. “Now I realize that a crime of that factor is a crime against an entire community. It tears at the fabric of our society.”

Williams said that hate crimes make an entire community feel threatened whether it be a racial, ethnic or religious community or the LGBTQ community.

What the amendments will do

Part of the problem with the existing hate crimes laws is that they don’t specifically mention bias or prejudice in the language, the pending bills’ proponents argue. An infographic from Equality Utah said:

In Utah, we adopted our first hate crimes law in 1992. But it’s time to make the law stronger. Why? The law makes no mention of hatred, bias, or prejudice based on specific characteristics such as the victim’s race.

In fact, the law makes no mention of ‘bias’ or ‘prejudice’ at all. Without explicitly saying what is prohibited, our law is unable to protect anyone.

Urquhart has proposed three amendments to Utah’s existing hate crimes laws and rules of evidence:

  • Adding “disability,” “gender,” “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the hate crimes reporting statute (The Hate Crimes Statistics Act, 1992)
  • Replacing Utah’s existing hate crimes statutes (The Hate Crimes Penalties Act, 1992, and Criminal Penalty Amendments, 2006) with a single section that defines and punishes hate crimes — crimes that are motivated by bias or prejudice against particular groups
  • Amending the Utah Rules of Evidence to protect the defendant’s freedom of speech and association in criminal trials for hate crimes

Additionally, if a person is convicted of a hate crime, the Hate Crimes Amendments bill provides penalty enhancements.

“If a crime is committed based on the victim’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity it receives a one-degree enhancement as far as penalty,” Urquhart said, adding that a victim refers to either a person or property in cases of hate-crime-specific vandalism.

So if an actor is convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of a hate crime the enhanced penalties would be as follows:

  • A class C misdemeanor would be a Class B misdemeanor
  • A class B misdemeanor would be a Class A misdemeanor
  • A class A misdemeanor would be a third degree felony
  • A third degree felony would be a second degree felony
  • A second degree felony would be a first degree felony

The proposed amendments further require the sentencing judge and the Board of Pardons and Parole to consider the hate-crime characteristic of a first-degree felony conviction and whether the penalty for such a first-degree felony is increased under another provision of law.

What is next for the bill?

On Feb. 11 the Hate Crimes Amendments bill passed out of a senate judiciary committee with a 5-1 vote, with one committee member not voting, paving the way for it to continue to the full senate. The bill lost some momentum, however, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a press statement Wednesday cautioning lawmakers not to pass any bills that could potentially upset the balance between the historic antidiscrimination and religious liberties bills passed in 2015.

“The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year,” a portion of the LDS church’s statement said. “Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained.”

Though the church’s statement didn’t overtly say it was targeted at the pending Hate Crimes Amendments bill, many including Urquhart believed the statement effectively killed the bill that has yet to reach legislators, many of whom are LDS. Urquhart publicly criticized the church of which he is a member while at the same time defending the bill which he believes offers protections not only for the LGBTQ community but also other communities, religions, ethnicities, races and those with disabilities included.

Williams said this:

The LDS Church is a major stakeholder in Utah, and their statements do have influence on Legislators. The Church has repeatedly and consistently said that they are “not opposed” to hate crimes legislation so we wouldn’t expect that to change. However, the Church’s statement about balance remains vague. We don’t believe that advancing a law that protects all Utahns alters any balance between LGBT rights and religious liberty. On the contrary, Senator Urquhart’s legislation carefully and thoughtfully protects both. We hope Legislators will take the time to carefully consider the issue.

According to the Senate’s Time Certain Calendar, the Hate Crimes Amendments bill is set for hearing Friday at 11 a.m. and Urquhart’s associated Joint Resolution Amending Rules of Evidence bill is set for hearing Friday at 11:05 a.m.

St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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1 Comment

  • Brian February 23, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Hate-crimes legislation shouldn’t exist. We should punish actions, not motives. If a bully punches my kid because he’s a “nerd” or annoying, and punches your kid because he’s gay, the punishment should be exactly the same. Justice is supposed to be blind, not psychic.

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