An issue that ‘transcends’ religious or political affiliation: Most Utahns say they support passage of hate crimes legislation as proposal receives first hearing since 2016

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Sen. Daniel Thatcher speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

Despite years of failure in the state Legislature, hate-crimes legislation has the support of a majority of Utahns — regardless of political affiliation or religious identity, according to a new poll.

The Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that about 64 percent of Utahns support the bill that would include harsher penalties for crimes based on a victim’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Just 29 percent oppose it. Support is particularly strong among Democrats, at 89 percent, but about 53 percent of Republicans also said they agree with the proposal.

“Support has gone up in every demographic, regardless of your ideology or your religious background or your political affiliation,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah. “Utahns are conscious of hate crimes and they want protections. And any time you have a proposal that is supported by all sides of the political spectrum, then you know it’s something they’re expecting you to follow through with.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said Wednesday that he’s pleased to see public support for his hate crimes proposal, SB103, mirrored in the legislative process. Next week the bill will receive its first public hearing since 2016.

“I might have cried,” Thatcher said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Under the state’s existing hate crimes statute, only misdemeanor assaults can be enhanced as hate crimes and it has never resulted in an upheld conviction.

Thatcher’s proposal would look to give that law some teeth by allowing judges to increase the penalties for a charged crime if a defendant is convicted of targeting someone based on ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. A person must first be convicted of a crime before additional penalties would apply.

“When people get that this is sentencing — it’s not a new crime — they tend to get on board,” he said. “It really only takes me about 10 minutes to convince a reasonable person.”

An overwhelming majority of states have hate crime laws, but they vary, to some degree. Most designate race, religion and national origin as motivations, but 13 states do not include sexual orientation and 33 do not include gender identity, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

Legislators and advocates have speculated that objections to the LGBTQ protections the hate crimes bill would establish have remained a sticking point in passage of the proposal, while others have pointed to perceived opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But at least one of those obstacles is gone this year after the church announced last week it wouldn’t oppose a hate crimes law. It had remained neutral on the issue in 2017 and 2018.

The church’s declaration came at the end of the Hinckley poll’s surveying period from Jan. 15 to Jan. 24, but even so about 59 percent of very active Latter-day Saints and 57 percent of somewhat active members still indicated they would support passage of hate crimes legislation.

“I think what we are seeing in Utah is [this is] an issue that transcends religious affiliation or political affiliation,” Perry said. “This is not a question of whether you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or not. This is a Utah issue.”

That’s true for Lindsay Zeigler, 35, a Latter-day Saint who said she feels a new hate crimes law could send an important message.

“I just feel that there should be harsher penalties for targeting a specific group,” she said. “It just feels like that would go further towards fighting against stereotyping and that kind of prejudice.”

Jordan King, a K-12 educator from Herriman, also indicated support for the bill that’s rooted in his professional experiences. He worries some of Utah’s LGBTQ youth are already more vulnerable because they lack support from their families and argues that violence perpetrated because of their identities should receive extra penalties.

“I would look at legislation that would support giving them that blanketed protection that yeah, you might not have the support of your family, but the state of Utah knows that you are in a demographic where people dislike you just for being who you are,” said King, 33. “And they can choose to dislike you, but they don’t get to act on that choice.”

There’s speculation Thatcher’s bill may have a better chance this year following national attention to Utah’s hate crimes law in November, when a man who was charged with beating a Latino man and his son outside their Salt Lake City tire shop while yelling about how he wanted to kill a Mexican did not face any enhancements for a hate crime.

“Between the high-profile Lopez case ... and this new clarification, I think we’re in a stronger position than we’ve ever been before,” Thatcher recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think we’re likely to get a hearing this year. I think the bill will pass overwhelmingly in committee. It will be a challenge on the floor, but I believe at the end of the day, this will be the year we get it passed.”

Thatcher told The Tribune on Wednesday that he believes his bill has the votes it needs to pass out of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee next week and that once it makes its way to the floor, legislative leaders have told him they are committed to getting the bill passed — with a few “tweaks.”

“My conditions are it has to be constitutional, it has to be enforceable and it can’t leave anyone out,” he said. “And they said, ‘We agree there.’ So it’s going to be minor. We think we’re going to be on the same page. So we don’t want to hold it up.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, however, said Senate leadership has “not taken any position about [the bill] yet as leadership or caucus.”

Only four of nine members of the committee confirmed their votes to The Tribune on Wednesday. Sens. Derek Kitchen and Luz Escamilla, both Democrats of Salt Lake City, said they will support the bill, while Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he wants to review the language first. Thatcher will, of course, be voting for the proposal.