Hate crimes bill returns to the Utah State Legislature

Posted at 4:35 PM, Jan 06, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY -- One of the most controversial bills on Utah's Capitol Hill is back, with a new sponsor who has hope this year it will pass.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, introduced a bill on hate crimes. Senate Bill 72, titled "Victim Selection Penalty Enhancements," enhances penalties if someone is convicted of targeting a crime victim based on ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity.

What Sen. Thatcher's bill does not say is the words "hate crime." He insisted the bill does not target people's feelings or thoughts, but their actions against a certain person or group.

"This entirely centers around whether or not you choose to use crime as a method of creating fear in people who share a characteristic," he said in an interview with FOX 13 on Friday.

Sen. Thatcher pointed to a video that surfaced on Facebook showing a disabled man being tortured in Chicago. Four suspects in that case face hate crimes charges there.

"In the case where someone behaves in such an outlandish, egregious manner that it's clear beyond reasonable doubt that the intent of their crime was to cause terror in a specific group of people -- that person is a little more dangerous, and they should be recognized as more dangerous," he said.

Past legislation on hate crimes has failed to advance in the Utah State Legislature, mostly over objections to adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes. Last year, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, accused The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of "snuffing out" his hate crimes bill.

The church had raised concerns that the bill could upset a "delicate balance" struck between lawmakers, the LGBTQ community and religious liberties advocates in legislation that provided for non-discrimination in housing and employment.

The LDS Church declined to comment on Sen. Thatcher's bill when contacted by FOX 13 on Friday. The senator said he has had conversations with church officials about the bill, but declined to say more about it.

There is a companion rule being proposed before the Utah Supreme Court that would also address legal rules of evidence when it comes to crimes of bias.

"We believe this bill is a component to a more inclusive discussion about intolerance and its effects on communities. But, by itself, it actually drives communities apart by encouraging divisive culture wars. We invite all to join us in finding an inclusive solution to this problem," said Derek Monson, the director of policy for the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank.

Social conservative groups are expected to fight the bill again. The LGBTQ rights group Equality Utah said it supported the bill.

"We all agree that hate and violence is wrong. Unfortunately, Utah's current hate crimes statute is woefully defective. It doesn't protect anyone," Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said. "We are grateful that the Statewide Association of Prosecutors is working closely with Sen. Thatcher to advance this important legislation."

Paul Boyden, the executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutions, said it was good for victims of crimes.

"The really important part of this is to have a sense of justice," he said. "That we actually care that people are being targeted because of their race, because of their religion."