Utah religious leaders call on Legislature to stem ‘alarming’ spread of hate crimes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop Oscar A. Solis welcomes worshippers at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Nearly two dozen Utah religious leaders are urging the Utah Legislature to pass SB86, which would enhance penalties for hate-driven crimes against people or property.

Under the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, punishment for a class A misdemeanor could be meted out at a harsher, third-degree-felony level if the crime targeted a person based on “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”

The letter, with 23 signatories representing Catholic, Episcopal, Protestant, Unitarian, Islamic and Jewish congregations, was written by the Rev. Oscar A. Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

On Wednesday, the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah voiced its support for the letter.

“The rate of hate crimes across the country has risen since the last time this legislation was introduced, and as such we see a clear need for swift action from the Legislature,” Josh Kanter, the alliance’s chairman and founder, said in a news release. “We have been told by our trusted law enforcement that the status quo of hate crimes law is ineffective in Utah. It is time we listen to the legal experts and faith leaders and pass SB86.”

In the Jan. 15 letter, drafted for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Prayer and Action to End Racism event, Solis noted that FBI data showed 47 racially based crimes in Utah in 2013.

“Swastikas are now showing up as public graffiti across the nation,” the bishop stated. “Muslim women are afraid to wear headscarves for fear of being assaulted. A bomb threat closed the [I.J. & Jeanné] Wagner Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City.”

Solis added: “These events, and countless others like them, perpetrated against single individuals and entire communities, are tragic and are alarming to those of us in the faith community.”

In an aside appealing directly to the Mormon majority in Utah — and on Capitol Hill — the Catholic bishop referred to the slain founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The not-so-subtle message [of a hate crime] is simple: You don’t belong here, go somewhere else. That was the same message Mormons got from 19th-century mobs in Missouri and Illinois: [LDS Church founder] Joseph Smith and [his brother] Hyrum Smith were murdered because of their religion.”

The LDS Church was not a signatory to the letter and has taken no position on SB86. Kanter noted that the measure would help protect entire communities, including Mormons, from hate-driven threats and attacks.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher speaks from the floor in the Senate on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015.

Thatcher’s effort to launch similar legislation last year was derailed when Senate GOP leaders refused to assign it to a committee. This time around, the bill has been given to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

In the letter, Solis urged lawmakers to take “prompt action” to pass SB86, dismissing some critics’ assertions that it could dull religious freedom.

“We believe that it is, in fact, a protection of religious liberty,” the bishop maintained. “… Utah is too great a place for any of our brothers and sisters to live in fear, whether they are in the majority or are part of a vulnerable minority.”