‘It’s about 50-50’: Proposed hate-crimes legislation hits a snag among Utah Senate Republicans

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) State Sen. Daniel Thatcher speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law, Aug. 21, 2018. Thatcher said Friday he remains optimistic his hate-crimes bill will get a public hearing and, finally, enough votes to pass the Senate.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, added his support Friday to a long-dormant effort to update and strengthen Utah’s hate-crimes law, which has never resulted in a successful conviction under its current language.

Despite his backing, Adams said, the bill continues to face opposition among Senate Republicans.

“I’m fine with the bill, personally,” Adams said. “However, I found out that me being fine with it doesn’t mean the rest of the caucus is.”

The bill, SB103, is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and would add enhanced penalties to crimes in which a victim is targeted because of their ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other individual or group characteristics.

A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently clarified that the Utah-based faith is not opposed to the legislation — following multiple years in which the LDS Church was commonly cited, accurately or not, as a factor in stalling the legislation. After that statement, Thatcher was optimistic that collaboration with his colleagues would lead to a successful bill in 2019.

On Friday, Thatcher declined to say how many of the Senate’s 23 Republicans are supportive of the legislation, but added that the bill is close to a position where it could move forward.

“I would say it’s about 50-50,” Thatcher said. “And there’s a couple people on the fence that I think we can encourage.”

Thatcher also suggested that the ongoing challenge to secure Republican support is evidence that opposition by LDS Church leaders was not the determining factor for senators.

“If the church really was the holdup the whole time, then why am I still having to work so damn hard to get votes?” he said.

The Senate’s six Democratic members are expected to support the legislation, meaning it could pass with fewer than half of the chamber’s Republican membership. Senate passage requires a minimum of 15 votes.

Adams said there is no requirement that a majority of the Republican caucus sign off on a bill before it receives a committee hearing, but he added there can be a political element to moving ahead on a bill without the support of party colleagues.

“When you go on your own like that, sometimes it does good, sometimes it does damage,” Adams said. “I think [Sen. Thatcher] is trying to build consensus and I think the political process is better served when you have consensus.”

One of Utah’s senators, Salt Lake City Democrat Derek Kitchen, recently experienced a crime that appeared to be motivated by opposition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Kitchen, the state’s only openly gay lawmaker, owns a restaurant with his husband where a pride flag was vandalized this week.

“My hope is that we can see something pass,” Kitchen said of SB103. “If Senator Thatcher needs my help in any way, I’m happy to provide my story.”

But other senators expressed concern about extending special legal considerations to some Utahns. Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said any protections offered to minority groups should also be available to the majority.

“We have equal protection under the law,” Millner said. “And we need to make sure what we put in place guarantees equal protection under the law.”

Thatcher credited Adams and Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, with helping to make the case for hate-crimes legislation to fellow Republicans. But he added that some members of the majority caucus simply dislike the bill.

“Some people fundamentally have an issue with treating crimes differently,” Thatcher said. “The reason that I struggle with that point of view is literally every single crime is different.”

SB103 is currently assigned to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.

Thatcher was optimistic a hearing would take place, and that the bill would be recommended to the full Senate for consideration.

“I’m going to keep working to ensure the success and the passage of this bill,” he said.

The Salt Lake Tribune is partnering with ProPublica and newsrooms across the country to better understand the prevalence and nature of hate crimes, bias and prejudice. You can share your insights with us at sltrib.com/documentinghate and we may contact you for future stories.