Utah hate crime legislation clears hurdle among GOP senators and will be heard by state lawmakers — “This is a bill that’s time has come”

After weeks of standstill, a bill to strengthen Utah’s ineffective hate crimes law is on the move again with support from a critical mass of Senate Republicans.

"I think today we overcame the largest hurdle," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, the measure's sponsor, said Tuesday after emerging from a closed-door meeting with GOP colleagues.

Thatcher, a West Valley City Republican, walked out declaring that the measure on Thursday will finally get a hearing before the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee. He’s confident he has the committee support to move the bill, SB103, forward to the full Senate, and although the floor vote will be close, he believes it will pass.

Last week, Thatcher was still laboring to rally enough Republican Senate support for the bill, a vital precursor to putting it on a committee calendar. He didn’t elaborate Tuesday on why lawmakers had been putting up resistance but talked about finding a path around these barriers.

“There’s a lot of people that are just inherently uncomfortable with hate crimes legislation, but we’ve done enough education, we’ve done enough work, and we’ve got enough support to move forward,” he said.

The bill would allow for enhanced penalties to crimes in which a victim was targeted because of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics. Part of the behind-the-scenes negotiations over the bill involved identifying other groups deserving of protection, and language made public Tuesday would add age, familial status, homelessness, marital status, matriculation, military service and status as a police officer or emergency responder to the list.

Utah’s existing hate crimes law — which has never resulted in a successful conviction — has long been criticized as weak and difficult to enforce, but state legislators have quashed attempts to beef it up. Some have laid blame on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and accused it of undermining the bill because it extends protections to LGBTQ individuals.

The church last month put out a statement clarifying that it is not opposed to the measure and supports inclusion of all groups that are typically covered by such laws. In the wake of that announcement, the continued pushback from Republicans has shown that the church wasn’t the problem, Thatcher said.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he’s pleased that the legislation is finally poised to get a hearing, although it’s been a long time coming and, in the meantime, Utahns have continued to be targets of hate.

Late last year, a Latino father and son were attacked outside their Salt Lake City tire shop by a man who yelled that he wanted to kill a Mexican. Last week, someone tore the pride flag that hangs over the entryway to Laziz Kitchen in Salt Lake City. And just this weekend in Salt Lake City, a man was captured in a cellphone video hitting another man after asking if he was gay.

"What was disturbing about the video footage is the first-person perspective. Every gay person watching that feels like the assailant is striking them, and that sends that chill of fear throughout an entire community," Williams said.

That’s why, he said, hate crimes must be subject to enhanced penalties: Because they victimize not only the person directly involved but also the communities they terrorize.

Utah Rep. Lee Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol officer who will be sponsoring the hate crimes bill in the House, said he’s hopeful his chamber will support the measure.

Even he took time to warm to the proposal, he said, adding that he was initially concerned it would inhibit free speech. But Thatcher’s persistence, coupled with a growing call for a working hate crimes law, brought him around to support the legislation, he said.

“It’s obvious that this is a bill that’s time has come,” Perry, R-Perry, 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.