Gehrke: Utahns need to fight resistance — from the Legislature and the Mormon church — to pass a hate crimes law

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

When you think of those few liberal bastions in Utah, Beaver County doesn’t usually make the list. Yet the southwestern Utah county commission was among the first in the state to call on the Legislature to pass hate crimes legislation.

There’s a good reason for that: First, the current statute is garbage and is unenforceable, but second, is that this is not, after all, a liberal or conservative issue. Indeed, the proposal Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, brought to the Legislature earlier this year was crafted to protect all Utahns from being targeted for crimes based on their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, traits that every single one of us has.

So far, five city or county councils have passed resolutions calling on the Legislature to address the issue — conservative West Jordan being the first, followed by Beaver County, South Salt Lake City and, earlier this month, Moab and Midvale.

There are discussions about adopting similar resolutions in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Ogden and others may also follow suit leading up to the 2018 legislative session.

Here’s why it matters: Last month, West Jordan was the first city to pass a resolution urging the Legislature to address victim targeting. The very next day, a federal grand jury indicted a Draper man for a hate crime after the man called a 7-year-old riding his scooter the n-word and then injuring the boy’s father with an electric stun cane after the father told him not to yell at his son. The Draper man plead not guilty earlier this month.

It was, you’ll note, a federal case, because Utah prosecutors’ hands are completely tied by the state’s toothless law.

That’s why, in addition to the local elected officials, the state’s association of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders from around the state, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Equality Utah have been urging the Legislature for years to pass hate crimes legislation.

With that broad support, you might wonder why the bill keeps getting shot down.

The responsibility for that lies in two places: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who last session did the church’s bidding and bottled up the bill.

If you go back to the 2016 session, hate crimes legislation, then sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, flew through committee and the senator had commitments for enough votes to get it through the Senate.

But the church, which fought gay marriage and fought for businesses to be able to discriminate against gay couples, treated it as another gay issue (it wasn’t) and issued a statement that doomed the bill.

Hate crimes legislation, the church said, would upset the balance struck when the church agreed to support a statewide anti-discrimination law — one that included provisions that largely exempted the church from having to comply.

Instantly, votes flipped and Urquhart lost his majority.

Last session, Adams used his leadership position and maneuvering to keep Thatcher’s bill — which Thatcher said at the time also had the votes to pass the Senate — bottled up in the Senate Rules Committee.

This is how things work in the Utah Legislature.

“I can’t understand why the church cares about the Utah criminal code,” Urquhart, now retired from the Legislature, said Tuesday. “I don’t understand what it has to do with God.”

This is not, to be clear, about punishing thought, but rather enhancing penalties for crimes designed to intimidate or target groups of people. Urquhart puts it this way: If someone paints a smiley face on a church, that might be simple vandalism, but if someone paints a swastika on a synagogue, “that’s more than just graffiti. That’s meant to terrorize an entire community. The intent in those two things is quite different.”

I contacted the LDS Church to ask if leaders of the faith have reconsidered their position: “Unfortunately for your story, we do not have anything new to add on this issue,” I was told by a spokesman.

It is unfortunate — unfortunate that the church still doesn’t see the value in providing extra penalties to crimes designed to intimidate or terrorize any group of people because of who they are, whether they’re women or black or gay or Mormon or all of the above.

And, unfortunately, it appears it will continue to be the case, until either the church comes around or enough Utahns get fed up and start making ripples by contacting their city and county leaders and convincing them to join Beaver and Moab and Midvale and West Jordan and South Salt Lake to create a tidal wave of support that can’t be held back.

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