Gehrke: An 18-year-old is fighting for his life, and the Legislature and LDS Church are to blame for the state not having a working hate crimes law

Look at the photograph of 18-year-old Luis Lopez in a hospital bed, tubes in his nose and throat, blood caked around his mouth and nostrils and soaking the sheets, after being beaten with a metal pole because of his race.

Lopez was working in his father’s tire shop last week when, police say, he was confronted by a man wielding a 3-foot pole and looking for members of the “Mexican Mafia.”

“I hate Mexicans,” the assailant said. “I f---ing hate Mexicans. … I’m here to kill a Mexican.”

The man, Alan Covington, allegedly knocked Lopez unconscious, opening a gash below his cheek. When police arrived, Lopez was on the ground, his father holding a rag on his head as the young man choked on the blood gushing from his wound.

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

It is probably the most cut-and-dry example of a hate crime you will ever see. But thanks to callousness and cowardice of the Utah Legislature, Covington won’t face a state-level hate-crime enhancement. It’s impossible.

That’s because the hate crimes statute on the books is utterly unworkable and, for no sensible reason, applies only to misdemeanors, not felonies.

“I can’t [charge] it as a hate crime,” a frustrated Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who has advocated for 18 years for a functional hate crimes law, told me Friday.

The Legislature has known for years that Utah effectively had no hate crime law on the books and for the past three had an opportunity to fix that, but did not, despite the support from prosecutors statewide and various advocacy groups.

In 2016, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said he had the votes to pass a hate crimes law in the Senate, but then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints weighed in against it, saying it would upset a balance struck when the church finally came around to supporting a law to prohibit employment and housing discrimination against LGBTQ Utahns. (Because obviously you balance protecting one group from discrimination by not protecting any group — including your own — from being targeted for violent crime.)

The votes vanished and the bill failed. The next year, Sen. Stuart Adams, now the incoming Senate president, used his clout to block the bill.

In the 2018 session, the bill didn’t even get a hearing, even though cities and counties around the state had passed resolutions urging the Legislature to address the issue.

I’ve asked spokespeople for the church each of the past two years to shed light on the faith’s stance on hate crimes legislation and they declined. I asked again Friday and the response? “We are not going to comment.” All it really would take is a statement that they don’t oppose the legislation. Sometimes silence speaks louder.

The point that is lost on opponents of hate crimes legislation is that it is designed to protect, say, LDS missionaries attacked for their religion the same as it would Muslims whose mosque is vandalized, or a lesbian couple assaulted leaving a restaurant, or Luis Lopez bashed in the head at his dad’s tire shop.

It’s important to have the enhancement in place because, as Gill explains, hate crimes don’t just target a single victim. A violent attack against a member of any of those groups sends a message to the entire community.

“Whether I’m saying, ‘Die, Jews,’ or ‘Die, Muslims,’ or ‘Die, Mexicans,’ it is all those communities that I’m sending that message to,” Gill said. “I am terrorizing those members of the community who feel just a little bit less safe about their personal safety, a little less safe about the community they belong to, a little less safe about the children or family members they send out into the world.”

As a result, there are thousands, even tens of thousands of people who are those secondary victims of hate crimes. The Legislature has shown a willingness in the past to push through legislation to help a small group of constituents, Gill says, “yet we turn a blind eye and deaf ear to thousands of people who cannot receive justice.”

It’s true federal prosecutors have the ability to file hate crime charges and in March won a conviction against a Utah man who zapped a 7-year-old black child with a “stun cane” after hurling racist epithets at the boy who was riding his scooter.

But we shouldn’t have to rely on the federal government to protect Utah residents, especially at a time where, according to FBI data released this month, the number of hate crimes nationally rose by 17 percent. In 2017, the FBI reported there were 78 hate crimes in Utah (although there is a discrepancy between the federal and state data).

Utah prosecutors need a strong, balanced and effective hate crimes law that will help them protect the communities that make up our state.

If legislators fail yet again to act, they owe it to Luis Lopez’s parents to look them in the eye and explain their failure, and then be prepared to do the same for the next Utahn victimized because of his or her race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. It is time for our leaders to finally act.