Hate crimes bill passes critical vote in the Senate

Posted at 6:20 PM, Feb 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-26 20:20:38-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that adds race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes under Utah's hate crimes law passed a critical vote in the Senate.

Lawmakers voted late Friday 17-12 to advance Senate Bill 107 to a final vote in the Senate. It came after a spirited debate.

"You'll see race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. Why? Because we're neither stupid nor afraid. We know these things put targets on people," said SB107's sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.

SB107 adds an enhancement to people convicted of targeting someone who falls under the protected groups. But critics of the bill claim it punishes speech and creates "thought crimes."

"Are we going to be afraid to speak freely these days because that will be deemed a hate crime in and of itself?" asked Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Sandy.

"When someone is accused of committing a hate crime, evidence of the defendant's expression or association, specifically protected by the First Amendment, cannot be introduced unless it specifically relates to the hate crime charged," Urquhart replied.

Much of the bill's controversy stems from the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the list of protections. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful influence on Utah's Capitol Hill, has expressed concerns that the bill upsets a balance struck in nondiscrimination legislation last year between LGBT rights and religious liberties.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, pointed out that there were other types of people who are often targeted that don't fall under the list of protections in SB107.

"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," he said, giving examples. "More important than fill in the blank. Because if you attack me if I'm transgender, it's an elevated right, a special right where there should be a penalty enhancement."

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, insisted the bill did not violate freedom of speech, but went after people who committed crimes. Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, recounted the murders of Mormons in the 1800s and pointed out that was a hate crime.

"Is it just rape and murder and arson or was this sent for a much broader message? That's what hate crimes do!" he said.

The Senate voted 17-12 to pass the bill on second reading. It faces a final vote in the Senate that could happen as early as next week. If it passes there, it goes on to the House for consideration.

Outside the Senate chamber, supporters of SB107 hugged and celebrated.

"I think we're going to go forward with it, I feel very uplifted" said Dr. Forrest Crawford, who supports the bill.

Rusty Andrade, who said he was attacked in an anti-gay hate crime, said SB107 is necessary because existing Utah law protects no one.

"People say in theory they support protecting Utahns, that we stand behind doing what's right, but in reality they're leaving a lot of people behind if we don't see this law changed," he said.

On Friday, Urquhart was joined on the Senate floor by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who pledged their support for the bill.

Sen. Urquhart told reporters after the vote he recognized he had an uphill battle getting the hate crimes bill through the final vote in the Senate. Last week, he had accused the LDS Church of "snuffing out" his bill.

"This was going to become law but for the statement of the church," he said. "That moved a lot of legislators, and I don't know if they're movable at this point."