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Hate Crimes Bill Clears First Hurdle With Unanimous Support

Photo of Daniel Thatcher.
Nicole Nixon / KUER
Sen. Daniel Thatcher's latest hate crime bill has cleared its first hurdle.

A long-attempted measure to strengthen Utah’s hate crimes law got its first thumbs up from a Senate committee Thursday, despite some lawmakers cautioning it might not deter such crimes.

The bill would enhance penalties for crimes targeting certain groups and got unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. But sponsor Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City, was reluctant to celebrate just yet.

“Victory laps would be very premature, but it does feel damn good to be on the field,” Thatcher said after the hearing, noting the measure will likely face some opposition on the Senate floor and still has a journey through the House.

Local prosecutors have said the current hate crimes statute is too weak to enforce. Thatcher noted that a case has never been successfully prosecuted under the law in its 19 years of existence.

The West Valley Republican believes the brutal attack of 18-year-old Luis Gustavo Lopez outside his family’s Salt Lake City tire shop last October helped raise support for the bill. Lopez’s alleged attacker, 51-year-old Alan Covington, was charged with three federal hate crimes on Wednesday.

Thatcher called it a failure of the state that the Lopez family “had to turn to the federal government for protection of their civil liberties.”

“We have an opportunity to send a clear message that we will do better,” he said.

The bill received strong support from some religious groups including the United Jewish Federation of Utah, Catholic Diocese and the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as LGBT groups in its committee hearing.

Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah, said attacks on gay Utahns, such as a widely publicized incident involving a Salt Lake man captured on cell phone video last Saturday, affect the entire community.

“When we see these kinds of attacks happen to our community, there is this fear that goes through all of us — ‘Am I next?’” Williams said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has long called for strengthening the law.

Gill, who is of Indian descent and a member of the Sikh faith, revealed that shortly after Sept. 11 he was verbally accosted by a truck full of strangers who shouted slurs and threatened to kill him and his family.

“They didn’t stop and assault me, but I know what I felt in that moment,” he said. “That fear is genuine.”

But some conservative opponents of the bill, like Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, say it would provide special protections for some groups, but not others.

“When you create lists, you leave people out,” she said.

Ruzicka said she has been threatened for her beliefs, but “I’m not on that list anywhere. I might be on there as a woman. I might be on there as a religious person. But I am not on there as president of the Eagle Forum.”

A decision by the influential Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to remain neutral on the measure this year breathed new life into the issue.

Thatcher has pushed since 2017 after former Sen. Steve Urquhart ran into opposition from the Church in previous years.

Despite the bill’s unanimous recommendation, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, warned enhanced penalties will not necessarily end victim targeting and hate crimes.

“I wish — oh, how I wish — that passing this law will solve the problem. It won’t,” Hillyard said. “But I think it gives enough of a signal that will help.”

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