A bill to strengthen the state’s hate crimes law passed the full Senate on Tuesday and will next be considered by the House, a first for such legislation in recent years.
Prosecutors, particularly Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, have argued the current statute is unenforceable.
The proposal would allow judges to impose tougher sentences for people convicted of crimes against a person or group based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other identifying factors.
Similar legislation has been proposed for the past several years but until Tuesday, none had ever made it through a full chamber.
Sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has run the bill since 2017. He said he has struggled to convince people that such a measure would only punish “a specific and deliberate action, and not thoughts and feelings.”
“I’ve seen posts on Facebook where people are losing their minds that we’re going to put people in jail for saying the n-word,” Thatcher said after the Senate vote. “There are some people who are just never going to get past the emotions tied to the concept of hate crimes,”
Over the years, lawmakers have “taken the time to dig in, to understand the issue,” Thatcher said. His bill passed the Senate Tuesday without debate by a vote of 18-11, after a preliminary vote in favor of the measure Monday afternoon.
Twelve Republicans joined all six Democrats in supporting it. Sens. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, and Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt, switched their votes on Tuesday after initially voting in favor of the measure Monday.
Some Republican senators expressed reservations about singling out groups for protections while excluding others.
“I've been generally opposed to special protections for some. I'm more in support of equal protection for all,” Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said Monday before voting against the bill.
Utah’s only openly gay lawmaker, Sen. Derek Kitchen, said he “is used to” threats made against him and being called homophobic slurs.
“When you are targeted not because of what you’ve done, but because of who you are, that creates two victims: you as the individual that’s targeted, but also the community that you represent,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said Monday.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, noted said the bill will go to the House “with some momentum.”
But Thatcher was more coy about its chances in the House, noting only that his co-sponsor Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, was “hopeful, which makes me hopeful.”