SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A long-awaited measure strengthening Utah’s hate crimes law was hailed as historic Tuesday as Gov. Gary Herbert signed the recently passed legislation.
“We are sending a message that every person, every individual in our society is worthy of dignity, respect and love,” he said.
Its passage in conservative Utah also encouraged supporters of similar measures in states like Indiana and Georgia, said Seth Brysk, a regional director with the Anti-Defamation League.
The legislation puts teeth in a Utah law that was essentially unenforceable. It creates stiffer penalties for people convicted of targeting others because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other factors.
Democratic Sen. Derek Kitchen, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, pointed to a recent attack on a friend who was punched on a Salt Lake City street, allegedly because of his sexual orientation.
“This bill comes at such an important time in our community. Everywhere we look we seem to be seeing more hate, more violence, more directed remarks,” he said.
The measure was stalled at the GOP-dominated Capitol for years, but Republican sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher kept bringing it back. “I didn’t know how personal or how emotional this issue was going to get,” he said.
This year, a groundswell of support picked up steam after the beating of a Latino man in Salt Lake City. Even though police say the attacker acknowledged wanting to “kill Mexicans,” prosecutors said the state’s law couldn’t be used to charge him with a hate crime because it doesn’t protect specific groups, among other deficiencies.
The assailant has been charged in federal court instead.
The victim, Luis Lopez, still bears scars on his face from the attack but told reporters Tuesday he was glad to know the law would do more to protect people.
Another key step in getting the legislation passed came when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly clarified that it didn’t oppose the measure. The church had previously expressed concern about upsetting a balance between religious and LGBTQ rights, a position supporters said damaged the bill’s chances.
All but five states in the U.S. have hate crime laws; Utah was one of 15 that didn’t cover anti-LGBT-crimes, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Though momentum in favor of the law was building as the session began in January, critics still worried about singling out certain groups for protections, and said increased criminal penalties wouldn’t erase prejudice.
Thatcher and House sponsor Republican Rep. Lee Perry lobbied their colleagues one by one, but it was still a surprise when the number of votes in favor began to climb on the House floor.
“My mouth dropped,” Perry said. “This is probably one of the most historic bills the state of Utah has passed … in a long, long time.”
Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST Associated Press.
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