Tribune editorial: Utah finally stepping up for the vulnerable

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Equality Utah's Troy Williams, right, speaks with Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, one of the sponsors of legislation to ban conversion therapy as they gather for a press event at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

Is this the year Utah does more for those who live in fear?

Proponents of a fully functional hate crimes law and opponents of discredited “conversion” therapies are closer to success than they’ve ever been, thanks to an evolving Utah Legislature and stronger messaging from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s SB103 would add enhanced penalties when felony crime victims are targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or other attributes. The bill came through committee unanimously and is headed to a vote on the Senate floor. Thatcher wisely is not claiming victory yet, but previous hate crimes bills had never made it to the floor.

What changed? For one thing, LDS Church lobbyist Marty Stephens said this year the church will not oppose a hate crimes bill. The church had stayed neutral on previous bills, too, but this time Stephens made a point of announcing it, adding that no group should be left out of any bill. That last point clarified that the church is OK with including LGBT hate crime victims.

To be sure, SB103 is a Utah-style hate crimes bill. In addition to the usual categories (age, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), there are enhanced penalties when people are targeted for their “matriculation.” Yes, that refers to what school they attend. Look for a future Utah-BYU stadium fight to be screened for hate crimes charges.

Opponents, including the Utah Eagle Forum and Libertas Institute, argue that choosing only certain groups for the hate crimes enhancement amounts to discrimination. No, it’s the perpetrators of these crimes who are discriminating.

Nationally, hate crimes have been making a comeback. The president’s divisive rhetoric and a sewer of hate on social media haven’t helped. In Utah, statistics haven’t been kept consistently, but it’s not hard to see examples, like the man who said, “I’m here to kill a Mexican” before beating two men in a tire shop and another who hit a man on Main Street last week apparently because he acknowledged he is gay.

Utahns recognize the need. Sixty-four percent of respondents in a recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll were in favor of beefing up Utah’s weak hate crimes law.

Then there is conversion therapy, where the acts are less violent but the damage no less real.

The therapy — various methods of directing patients to deny or suppress their sexual orientation — was never the right thing to do, but until recently it was acceptable to mainstream Utah. Now, even one of its most prominent proponents has renounced it.

House Bill 399 would prevent licensed therapists from invoking such methods with minors under their care. The bill applies only to licensed therapists. It does not apply to others, including clergy, a key distinction that helped the LDS Church stay neutral on this bill, too.

Studies have found that not only is the therapy ineffective, it’s destructive, leading to higher rates of suicide and mental health problems. Sen. Dan McCay, a Riverton Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill, stated the intent beautifully: “We want you, every one of you, to be part of the future. We don’t want to lose any of you.”

In an ideal world, no one hurts another simply because their skin color or religious beliefs or sexual identity is different, and no therapists promote harmful ideas to their vulnerable patients.

Until then, we’ll need to deter the perpetrators with our laws. The time is now, and the place is here. Utah is ready.