Commentary: Mormons know what it’s like to be a persecuted minority — so pass a hate-crime law for Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, in the Senate Chamber, Salt Lake City, Friday Feb. 23, 2018.

Visitors to the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery may encounter a 15-foot-tall monument to a man they’ve never heard of.

The memorial, dedicated in 1880, marks the final resting place of Joseph Standing, who had been violently murdered a year prior while serving as a Mormon missionary in northern Georgia.

Carved on the sides of the monument are the names of the 12 members of the lynch mob who killed Standing in what the memorial accurately calls a shameful act of “bigotry and prejudice.” Etched into stone as a permanent witness to a crime motivated by hate and intolerance are the words uttered by one of the men who shot Standing: “There is no law in Georgia for the Mormons.”

There was no law for the Mormons in Tennessee either, after a mob attacked a Sunday morning service in 1884, killing four Latter-day Saints. There was no law for the Mormons in North Carolina five years earlier, when ruffians dragged six church members out of their homes, “cruelly whipped and clubbed” them, and told them they had four weeks to leave the state.

There was no law for the Mormons in late nineteenth-century Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, when arsonists burned down LDS church buildings. In hundreds of cases of violence against Mormon persons and property in the postbellum South, existing laws did not protect a vulnerable minority from bigotry and prejudice. More often than not, the victims’ minority status gave local law enforcement officers or prosecutors all the reason they needed not to pursue justice. Many in Southern society defined Mormons as peculiar outsiders who simply got what they deserved.

When the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Great Basin, they considered it a refuge, but even their new Zion would not be free of identity-based violence. Mormon militias, led by church luminaries, pursued a campaign of limited “extermination” against the region’s indigenous peoples, first in Utah Valley and then in periodic massacres afterward. African-Americans experienced widespread prejudice in Utah, which sometimes translated into violence. In 1866 the mutilated body of Thomas Coleman was unceremoniously dumped on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City with a note affixed reading, “Notice to all n-----s. Take warning. Leave white women alone.”

The United States, and Utah, have come a long way from the era of unchecked vigilantism, but bigotry and prejudice still stalk the land. There have been too many instances when dark urges have surfaced and translated into violent acts. Too many religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, disabled and gender-nonconforming minorities are afraid that there will be no law for them.

Utah is one of only a handful of states whose origins are intimately tied with a persecuted minority seeking safety and refuge. Utah should thus be a place where vulnerable minorities of all kinds are made to feel safe. For this reason, we applaud a bill currently under consideration in the Utah Legislature that is designed to advance protections for minority individuals and groups who constitute the most vulnerable, and often fearful, members of our society.

SB86, sponsored by Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher, is designed to enhance punishments for violence or property damage against a person or group due to their “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Laws serve an important role in restraining and punishing perpetrators, but they also represent a society’s core values. Intent matters, as we already recognize in the difference between first-degree premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter. SB86 will stand as a clear beacon that Utah and Utahans will not tolerate any crimes, but especially not those committed with the intent to make any person feel they are unwelcome in our communities.

As practicing Mormons and historians of Mormonism, we are grateful that Latter-day Saints no longer have to live in substantial fear of violence born of bigotry and prejudice. As citizens and historians of the United States, we look forward to the day in which no minority of any kind will live in fear of violence born of bigotry and prejudice. SB86 is common-sense, moral legislation that will let all people know that there is, in fact, a law for them in Utah.

Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Claremont Graduate University.

Paul Reeve lives in Bountiful, Utah, and is the author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.