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Utah Legislature Sends Hate Crimes Bill 'With Teeth' To Governor's Desk

Sen. Daniel Thatcher hugs Troy Williams
Courtesy Ben Winslow of Fox 13
Sen. Daniel Thatcher hugs Troy Williams of Equality Utah after the House passed his bill, S.B. 103, strengthening the state's hate crimes laws.

The Utah Legislature has passed a significant overhaul to the state’s hate crimes statute, a measure Gov. Gary Herbert said he was eager to sign and would provide a “powerful tool” for protecting vulnerable communities.

The Senate on Wednesday morning gave the bill its final procedural vote after the House approved the legislation on Tuesday night. It was a major victory for supporters who had tried yet failed for years to toughen state law governing hate crimes, which prosecutors have called weak and unenforceable.

“This was a bill that a long time ago I wasn’t in support of. I have come to the point where I understand the importance of passing this bill in the state of Utah,” said Rep. Lee Perry, the House sponsor of S.B. 103.

He said the bill is narrowly tailored to only apply to a person after a crime is committed, based on whether they selected their victims on certain identifying characteristics.

As Perry, R-Perry, spoke, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, the bill’s primary author, stood anxiously behind him, occasionally whispering talking points to include in the debate.

The legislation would allow for a judge to add sentencing enhancements to anyone convicted of a crime targeting someone based on identifying factors including race, religion, gender, age, among a dozen other categories.

During debate, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, successfully amended the bill to add “political expression” to the list of personal attributes that could be considered.

Thurston said he felt it was important to send a message that it is not OK to lash out at someone for engaging in the political process.

“I think that is equally egregious as some of the things on this list,” he said.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee stood in support of the addition. The Clearfield Republican broke down in tears as she described threats she’d received over her controversial changes to a bill banning conversion therapy last week.

“I have had people tell me, ‘How dare you play the victim card?’ And I ask you, is not having somebody threaten you making you a victim?” she said, her voice quivering.  

The House approved the bill in a vote of 64-9 after an emotional debate Tuesday night in which many House members of different races and religions recounted their own personal experiences of targeted harassment.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the Legislature’s only black member, said the problem is more widespread than many members would care to realize.

“A lot of you think, ‘This is not happening in my district to people of color or people in the LGBTQ community — let me tell you: It is,” she said. “Part of the problem is: They don’t trust you.”

Hollins said as one of the few people of color in the Legislature, she has often fielded complaints from constituents in other districts who don’t feel comfortable going to their representatives.

“This is not a ‘me’ problem — this is a state problem and it needs to be solved by all of us,” said Hollins.

Other lawmakers said the measure is long overdue.

“By making communities fearful, and suspicious of the power structure who’s supposed to protect them, hate crimes damage the very fabric of our society,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, the only Jewish member of the Legislature, who said her own synagogue had been targeted many times.  

In a Tweet late Tuesday, Herbert said he looked forward to signing the bill. 

03/13/19: This story has been updated with the final vote. 

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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