Utah House set to vote on hate crimes bill after committee OKs it despite objections to sponsor’s ‘flippant’ comments

Sen. Daniel Thatcher said Friday that he feels good about the chances for his hate crimes legislation to pass the House, but acknowledged that his “flippant" comments before the House Law Enforcement Committee could weaken support for the yearslong effort to fix what prosecutors say is a toothless and ineffective state statute.

The committee voted 8-2 to recommend SB103 after a sometimes heated discussion, during which two representatives scolded Thatcher, R-West Valley City, for comments they took as suggesting they were less qualified to understand the bill than their Senate counterparts.

“It was the kind of flippant comment that I make when I’m talking to friends privately,” Thatcher said after the hearing. “It was an inappropriate comment to make.”

Thatcher apologized to the committee generally and to lawmakers individually after the hearing.

He also clarified that his intention was to emphasize the value of input from subject-matter experts like attorneys, prosecutors and the sentencing commission.

Thatcher said most of the committee discussion Friday was “awesome” and that he believes the bill will pass in the House after years of failed attempts to get out of the Senate.

“We’ve given the House an opportunity to have bragging rights forever over the Senate,” Thatcher said. “Because it took the Senate four years to get this thing through, and the House could get it on their first try.”

Under the bill, crimes would be subject to penalty enhancements in instances where a victim is targeted specifically due to their race, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics. The bill was approved by the Senate on Tuesday after Thatcher amended it to include additional victim classifications like their age, martial status, matriculation and military service.

“We are not punishing thoughts or feelings,” Thatcher said. “We are not criminalizing anything that is not currently a crime.”

Jay Jacobson, a board member for the United Jewish Federation of Utah, spoke in support of the bill. He said its passage would send a message that Utah is legally supportive of religious communities, communities of color and other groups that are targeted for violence.

“I would be proud, as would my colleagues, to live in a state that signaled to us that Utah is no place for hate," he said.

But Dani Palmer, of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, objected to the bill’s list of protected classifications. By listing who is included under hate crimes protections the law excludes other targeted crimes, she said, like a victim selected for their political ideology or affiliation with political groups.

“What I would do,” Palmer said, “is add anybody who is selected for a crime for whatever reason.”

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, pointed to the bill’s inclusion of ancestry and gender and suggested the breadth of listed classifications in the bill is sufficient to include nearly everyone.

“Basically the bulk of humanity, somehow, would fall into these labels,” Snider said.

The question of whether political affiliation should be added to the bill has been raised at multiple points during the legislative process for SB103. Thatcher said political expression, association and speech are already protected under current law and that the bulk of hate crimes are committed against victims based on their religion, race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Thatcher said it’s likely the political affiliation issue will be raised on the House floor, but he’s confident the collective expertise of the chamber will allow members to explain why such an amendment is unnecessary.

“There are competent attorneys who understand this law who understand this language who can get up and make the argument,” he said.

While most committee members indicated their support for the bill — and ultimately voted in favor of its passage — Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, was the first to question Thatcher’s comments, which he called “insulting and out of order.”

Thatcher had commented that he “cheated a little bit” on the Senate side by getting his bill assigned to a committee where the members were either attorneys in their private careers or had worked for years with the state’s sentencing commission, which supports SB103.

“The benefit I had [in the Senate] is all of the members of that committee on the Republican side were either attorneys or spent eight years working with the sentencing commission,” Thatcher said. “So we get that a crime is not a crime, that all crimes are treated differently and individually.”

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, opposed the bill, and referred to Thatcher’s characterization of the House committee during a charged exchange with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who had referenced an event in the Latter-day Saint movement known as the Haun’s Mill Massacre as an example of a religious community being targeted.

“I’m not an attorney,” Strong said. “I guess i’m just one of these ignorant committee members.”

Strong questioned the effect of enhancing a crime beyond first-degree murder, independent of whether the victim was of a particular race or religion.

“I don’t care. I really don’t care,” Strong said. “I see all of us as individuals under the law. Because of that, I cannot support this legislation.”

Strong told The Tribune after the hearing that he accepted Thatcher's apology "100 percent."

“No issues at all — none — on my end,” he said.