State legislator calls on Mormon church leaders to take a stance. Are they for or against his hate crimes bill?

(Scott Sommerdorf | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, listens as Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, presents a bill during a House Revenue and Taxations committee meeting at the Utah State Capitol complex on Feb. 8, 2017. Thatcher has proposed a bill in the upcoming 2018 legislative session, called Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements, that looks to give the state’s current hate crimes law some teeth.

A former Utah legislator said opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had “snuffed out” his proposed hate crimes bill in 2016. The next year, church officials made no comment on the issue — but state Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s bill still didn’t receive a public hearing.

With hate crimes on the rise, Thatcher is now urging Utah’s predominant faith to officially clarify its position before the upcoming legislative session, where he has proposed a similar bill.

“They had no position last year either, and yet there’s no shortage of people who are happy to speak on behalf of the church in the absence of an official statement from them,” said Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who declined to identify his religious views. “So while I believe going from opposition to no comment is and of itself a position, the problem is as long as they continue to say, ‘We have no position,’ there will be plenty of people who are willing to tell you what the church’s position is. It wouldn’t be accurate, but that won’t stop them.”

A church spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Statistics released last month show incidents of hate crimes rose in Utah last year — a trend FBI agents in Utah believe will continue based on complaints and investigations this year. There were 66 incidents reported in the state. Of the 6,121 reported nationally, most were committed because of a person’s race, ethnicity or ancestry, followed by religious affiliation and sexual orientation.

Utah’s current hate crimes statute, adopted in 1992, has never resulted in an upheld conviction. Hate crimes do get prosecuted here but on the federal level — a reality Thatcher said conservatives should be eager to change.

“Utah is not capable under current law of prosecuting these cases ourselves, which means that when things like this happen, they’re turned over to the feds for prosecution,” he said. “When was the last time that any conservative in Utah was happy delegating our obligations to the federal government?”

Thatcher has not released the details of his 2018 proposal, but the senator said it would allow a judge “to consider as part of the sentencing phase whether or not [a crime] was a deliberate, targeted attack based on an inherent, protected characteristic” — a procedure that is not currently in place. At that point, “if the judge concludes that it was an unlawful target, then the penalty would be enhanced.”

Thatcher prefers to call the issue “victim targeting” rather than hate crimes, arguing that you can’t prove hate but you can prove someone specifically chose a target.

Former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, saw his version of this proposal fail in the Senate on a 17-11 vote in 2016. Urquhart told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time that he believed opposition from the LDS Church lost him the votes needed to pass his bill.

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

The church has stayed quiet on Thatcher’s proposal so far.

In an attempt to drum up more support, several municipalities have passed resolutions urging the Legislature to approve the bill or something like it.

Salt Lake City passed its resolution Tuesday night, which called for “stronger tools to address crime in which the offender targets victims.”

West Jordan’s City Council was the first to pass a resolution, followed by Beaver County, South Salt Lake, Moab and Midvale. Those governing bodies have joined groups like the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association and others that have already expressed support for the Legislature to act. Equality Utah has also expressed its support.

“Hate crimes are on the rise in both Utah and around the country, so this is an affirming way for municipalities to come together and say, ‘We don’t tolerate this kind of behavior in our town,’” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “We’re very encouraged by this, and we’re very hopeful that this momentum will continue to build.”

Williams said he’s eager to continue working to engage the church on the issue.

“It took us seven years to get the church on board for a statewide nondiscrimination law, so I’ve not lost hope in them,” he said.

Williams said he wants to demonstrate to lawmakers and Mormon officials that the bill would include religion in its protections, along with sexual orientation, race and gender identity.

“The state of Utah was founded by Latter-day Saints fleeing persecution,” he said. “They were targeted because of their faith, so it would be so powerful to see in 2018 the LDS Church step forward and support this legislation.”