After years of stalling in the Utah Legislature, a bill to strengthen the state’s hate crimes law has now cleared both chambers by commanding margins.
The Utah House on Tuesday night passed it by a vote of 64-9 after an emotional debate during which lawmakers talked about constituents, acquaintances and family members who have been targeted because of their race, ethnicity or religion. Because of weaknesses in the existing hate crimes law, it has never resulted in a successful conviction.
“Our law doesn’t work. We have to fix it,” Rep. Lee Perry, the bill’s House sponsor, told his colleagues ahead of the vote. The legislation is supported by a majority of Utahns, according to recent polling.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who has long worked to beef up the state’s hate crimes law, stood on the House floor behind Perry, R-Perry, as the debate unfolded, and embraced supporters of the bill after the vote.
“Did I tell you this was our year?” Thatcher said while wrapping Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, in a bear hug.
Williams said the moment had been nearly 20 years in the making.
“It was incredibly moving to have a body of conservative elected lawmakers vote for protections for LGBTQ individuals,” he said.
Thatcher said he expects the Senate to give a final sign-off on the bill Wednesday morning, and Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said he looks forward to signing it into law.
“Governor Herbert appreciates the great work of the legislature in passing this important piece of legislation, which will serve as a powerful tool in providing critical protections to marginalized groups and persons,” said a statement released by his office Tuesday evening.
House lawmakers who rose in support of the bill spoke personally about the racist comments that have been aimed at them or their family members or the crimes that have spread terror through their communities.
Rep. Patrice Arent talked about how a gunman, Macon Openshaw, fired shots at her Salt Lake City synagogue in 2012.
“He hated Jews and the building symbolized what he hated,” Arent, a Millcreek Democrat, said. “Openshaw’s actions sent fear throughout our entire community.”
Fellow Democrat, Rep. Angela Romero, referenced the brutal attack on a Latino father and son at a tire shop in Salt Lake City last year. The man who allegedly assaulted them said he was looking to “kill a Mexican.” The attack, Romero said, happened in her district.
“These are the experiences that many of my constituents have every day. They live in fear because of who they are,” the Salt Lake City lawmaker said.
On the other hand, Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, urged his colleagues to vote down the legislation, saying he was worried that the nation was losing its ability to speak freely as an increasing number of topics become taboo.
Critics of the bill have largely voiced concern that it would criminalize thoughts and ideas and argue that a crime shouldn’t be punished more harshly because it’s motivated by animus. Proponents rebut that hate crimes should have heightened penalties because they are aimed at terrorizing an entire group, rather than just a single individual.
Before passing the bill, the House adopted an amendment that added “political expression” to the list of categories that would be protected by the updated hate crimes statue.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee tearfully spoke in favor of adding political speech as a protected class, saying she’s received death threats since she made widely criticized changes to a bill that sought to ban conversion therapy for minors.
“I’ve been targeted,” Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said.
Tuesday’s bipartisan approval caps off a multiyear effort to update the hate crimes statute. 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.
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. Additional classes that would be protected under the bill include age, familial status, homelessness, marital status, matriculation, military service and status as a police officer or emergency responder to the list of protected classes.
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, which has never actually taken place, as prosecutors say the law is unworkable. The update would enable enhancements for felonies.
The legislation now heads back to the Senate, which passed it last week in an 18-11 vote.