'We have reached a tipping point’: Utah Senate approves hate crimes bill in its first floor vote in years

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R- West Valley City, celebrates the initial approval of his hate crimes bill with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. Thatcher's SB103 bill would allow judges to increase penalties for a 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. There have been no successful convictions under the state's current hate crimes law.

A bill that would update Utah’s current hate crimes law — which has long been criticized as weak and has never resulted in an successful conviction — advanced in the Senate on Monday with a preliminary 19-9 vote.

The bipartisan approval is seen as a major victory in what has been a multiyear effort. Proposals to increase penalties for a person charged with a bias-motivated crime didn’t receive hearings in 2017 or 2018 and a similar bill failed in the Senate in 2016.

“I have never felt more pressure on any bill that I have ever carried,” Sen. Daniel Thatcher, the bill’s sponsor, told lawmakers as he urged them to vote for his proposal.

“I’ve always known that there’s a next year. I’ve always known that you can try again. I’ve always known that you can work a little harder. This year, I know how many people are counting on us to stand up and make the hard decision and do the right thing," he said. "I feel the tremendous weight of all of those communities.”

SB103, supported by 13 Republicans and all six Senate Democrats, now needs one more vote in the chamber before moving on to the House.

If approved, Thatcher’s bill would allow judges to increase penalties for a 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.

Under the state’s current hate crimes law, only misdemeanor assaults can be enhanced as hate crimes. This update would also enable enhancements for felonies.

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, and part of the behind-the-scenes negotiations over the bill involved identifying all the groups deserving of protection. The most recent version of the bill would add age, familial status, homelessness, marital status, matriculation, military service and status as a police officer or emergency responder to the list of protected classes.

But during the floor debate, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, proposed an amendment that would also add “creed” and “political belief” as protected categories under the bill.

“Across the country we’ve seen a number of stories lately where somebody may be targeted because of their political belief or because they may be conservative,” he said. “Because they’re wearing a MAGA hat. Because of particular actions or thoughts that they have on campus.”

Thatcher opposed the amendment, arguing it would bring uncertainty to the bill and that lawmakers should instead study those characteristics during interim session.

Senators ultimately rejected the amendment.

‘Not because of what you’ve done but because of who you are’

Penalty enhancements for hate crimes are seen by advocates as important because the crimes victimize not only the person directly attacked but also the communities they terrorize.

“When you are targeted not because of what you’ve done but because of who you are, that creates two victims: you as the individual that’s targeted but also the community that you represent,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.

Utah’s only openly gay state lawmaker, Kitchen acknowledged that he is a member of a community that is frequently targeted. Just last month, for example, someone tore down the pride flag that hangs above the Salt Lake City restaurant he owns with his husband, Moudi Sbeity.

“I’m used to hearing things like people call me ‘faggot’ or threats to my life for one reason or another,” Kitchen told lawmakers before the vote. “Those are things that I’ve sort of made peace with and it’s something that you learn to deal with in this community.”

(Photo courtesy of Moudi Sbeity) The pride flag hanging above Laziz Kitchen, located at 912 S. Jefferson Street in Salt Lake City, was torn over night on Monday. "Actions like this send a clear signal to LGBTQ youth, teens who are transitioning, teens who identify as queer or gender fluid that they are not accepted," said Moudi Sbeity, who co-owns the restaurant.

But people are most likely to be targeted based on race or religion, he said, noting that Sbeity is from the Middle East and of the Muslim faith and that this bill would protect people in those categories as well.

“I realize that politics is truly the art of what is possible,” Kitchen said of SB103. “And considering the political environment here in Utah, this is pretty darn good.”

Some have raised concerns that it would exclude certain individuals while offering special legal protections for others.

“We had someone testify [in committee] that they got hate calls on their voicemail to the point they had to call the police because they belonged to the Eagle Forum,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, referring to a conservative Utah political group. “And the question was, ‘Where am I on this list?’”

Hillyard, the Legislature’s longest serving member, voted for the bill.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said Monday that it was a “shame” that lawmakers had given preliminary approval to the bill.

“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I think that we have an excellent hate crimes bill right now. If they wanted to [they could] amend that a little bit by putting the increased penalties, the felonies in the existing hate crimes. But existing hate crimes covers everybody. There’s no list; it covers everybody.”

Thatcher noted that his bill has the support of cities, counties, law enforcement officials and criminal justice organizations and disagreed that the new language of the bill wouldn’t provide equal protection.

“Every single person on the planet has a race. They all have religious beliefs, even if they don’t believe in a religion. They all have sexual orientation."

Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, who voted against the bill, told lawmakers he opposed it because it goes against the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which sought to reduce the prison population by shortening sentences and focusing on rehabilitation.

“Increased incarceration does not treat the offender and at the end of the day we ought to be focusing on treatment of the individual and not on punishment,” he said, noting that lengthy prison sentences have often come as a result of penalty enhancements.

The bill’s fiscal note shows SB103 could cost state government roughly $57,910 in 2020 and $94,810 in 2021 for prison costs.

‘We have reached a tipping point’

Thatcher has speculated that a number of factors have coalesced to give his hate crimes bill a better chance of passage this year after years of failed attempts.

For one, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long been perceived to be entangled in hate crimes and has commonly been cited as a factor in stalling the legislation. But after staying silent on the issue in 2017 and 2018, a spokesman for the church recently clarified that the Utah-based faith is not opposed to the legislation.

“This year we have more support than we’ve ever had before, with the clarifying statement from the LDS Church, with the public support of the governor,” Thatcher told his colleagues. “We have reached a tipping point where almost 70 percent of Utahns agree that this is a policy we need to move forward with.”

Gov. Gary Herbert said at his monthly news conference last week that he is not opposed to the hate crimes bill.

“I understand the concept and actually am OK with that as we already have precedents [with penalty enhancements in other areas],” he said. “I’d have to take a look at the bill and see in its completed form whether I support it or not, but we’ll be working with the sponsors to see if we can get it right.”

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Herbert says he backs a state legislative push to ban some types of gay conversion therapy that he called "barbaric" but added that defining what constitutes conversion therapy is key. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A number of recent high-profile crimes have also raised awareness of and interest in the state’s hate crimes statute.

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 month, a man was captured in a cellphone video hitting another man in Salt Lake City after asking if he was gay.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in mid-January found there is strong public support among Utahns for efforts to increase hate crimes penalties. While support was particularly secure among Democrats, at 89 percent, about 53 percent of Republicans also said they agreed with the proposal. Some 63 percent of unaffiliated voters, who make up the state’s second-largest voting bloc, supported hate crimes legislation.

“Sometimes it takes a couple years to actually help educate people on the issues that we’re trying to raise,” said Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams, who has been working on the bill for four years. “And so we found this vote to be very promising and hopeful. I’m absolutely optimistic that we’re going to get this bill all the way to Governor Herbert’s desk.”

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.