Utah is about to get a tougher hate crimes law after final legislative OK

The Utah Senate gave final approval to a bill that would strengthen the state’s hate crimes law, which has long been criticized as weak and has never resulted in a successful conviction.

The bill passed 22-3 on Wednesday and now heads to the governor, capping a multi-year effort to increase penalties for a person charged with a bias-motivated crime that has failed to gain much traction in previous years, not receiving hearings in 2017 or 2018 and failing in the Senate in 2016.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has speculated that a number of factors coalesced to propel his hate crimes bill this year.

For one, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long been perceived to oppose a tougher hate crimes law, in particular, protections for LGBTQ people. But after staying silent in past years, a spokesman for the church recently clarified that the Utah-based faith is not opposed to the legislation and that a broad range of groups should be included. A number of recent high-profile crimes have also raised awareness of and interest in the state’s hate crimes statute.

SB103 received stronger support in the Senate than it had earlier this month, concurring with an amendment the House made Tuesday night to add “political expression” to the list of classes that would be protected.

“With that amendment I believe we actually have a better bill than what left the Senate,” Thatcher told his colleagues before the final vote.

The bill would allow a judge 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.

Some critics have raised concerns that the bill would exclude certain individuals while offering special legal protections for others, and part of the behind-the-scenes negotiations involved identifying all the groups deserving of protection. Age, familial status, homelessness, marital status, matriculation, military service and status as a police officer or emergency responder were added to the list.

During the bill’s first Senate debate, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, proposed an amendment that would also add “creed” and “political belief” as protected categories and gave the example of someone wearing a Make America Great Again hat. That amendment was shot down, with some lawmakers worrying it would dilute the bill — a concern Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, raised again Wednesday.

“I’m disappointed with the amendment that came from the House and I think it undermines the real problem we’re facing,” she said. “It’s hurtful and I know it’s what we have to do in order to pass the bill but it’s not what the bill’s intent was so I’m really, truly disappointed with that wording.”

Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign the bill into law, noting that he thinks it will “serve as a powerful tool in providing critical protections to marginalized groups and persons,” according to a statement released by his office Tuesday evening.

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.

“In our community, everybody deserves to have an opportunity to learn in school, to succeed at their place of work and to participate fully in public life and they should be able to do this free of harassment and free of being targeted for any reason,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, and Utah’s openly gay lawmaker.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also said the bill will send a message to the state of Utah “that bigotry and hatred will not be accepted.”

In a prepared statement, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes praised the bill’s passage, saying it was a great day for every person or family who ever feared leaving their home due to hate.

“It’s a historic day for every parent who has stayed up worrying about whether they should let their kids go to school because of threats or violence,” Reyes said. "It’s an unforgettable day for every person who has been victimized because of who they are.”

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.