A hate-crimes bill nine years in the making will not debut in the Utah house of representatives this year as expected but instead in the senate.
Senators Karen Hale (D-Salt Lake City) and Greg Bell (R-Fruit Heights) will cosponsor the bill, Hale said Friday. The pairing is significant because the two are both active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members in the legislature have long opposed the bill.
The bill increases the criminal penalties for bias crimes by one step--for example, increasing a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. Bias would include any crime based on race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age, or gender. The list is based on classifications already in laws that have been upheld before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Utah's current hate-crimes law is one of four nationwide that fails to include a list of protected groups. When challenged in the courts, as a Georgia law was recently, legislation without a list of groups has been ruled "unconstitutionally vague."
That's the argument that Rep. David Litvack (D-Salt Lake City) has tried to make over the last five years without success. Litvack, who had planned to make a sixth run at the bill this year, will now hold his legislation pending the performance of the Hale-Bell bill. "It doesn't matter who gets it done; the point is that it gets passed," Litvack said Thursday.
The Hale-Bell version of the bill is identical to a bill that Litvack had planned to carry. That bill has failed to pass over the years primarily because of the inclusion of sexual orientation protections, because some conservative lawmakers feared that this would create special rights for gays.
A majority of lawmakers are members of the LDS Church, which teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Although asked for its endorsement on the bill in past years, LDS leadership has never done so. They have, however, issued statements saying they did not "object to the bill as drafted."
That church members Hale and Bell will sponsor the bill says a lot about how the debate over hate-crimes legislation has progressed, said Forrest Crawford, a Weber State University professor, who is also a member of Utahns Together Against Hate, a group of community and business leaders working to pass the bill. "They stand as a model, a symbol for a broader sentiment of discourse that has been occurring for a long time," Crawford said, who has worked on the bill since 1991. "They've gotten passed the issue and are saying that what this is really about is public safety."
Statistics dating back to 1998 show that an average of about 66 hate crimes occur in Utah annually. Prosecutors and police, however, rarely pursue them as such, because they believe the existing state law is ineffective. Gov. Jon Huntsman said in a taped television news conference that Friday he was "open" to hate-crimes legislation. (AP)
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