Bills in the Legislature that would increase penalties for crimes based on bigotry - so-called "hate crimes" - have been opposed by some Utah groups, but usually for the wrong reasons. Similar measures were defeated in 1990 and 1991, yet the bills deserve to be passed for the sake of simple justice.

The legislation targets offenders who attack people or property for reasons of race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.Some foes decry the bills on the grounds that they would give "extra protection" to homosexuals. In a move as unjustifiable as it was cruel, the portions of the bills protecting homosexuals were dropped.

Does that mean it should be open season on such people; that it's OK for them to be physically assaulted and beaten up; that because of their lifestyle they are not worthy of the law's protection? Hardly!

Though homosexuality is vile, that does not justify beatings and other illegal assaults on people suspected of being homosexuals. Such attacks are mere savagery and are not to be condoned in a civilized society.

More than half the identified hate crimes in Utah are aimed at homosexuals. If it takes laws with extra penalties to curb these assaults, then that is what should be done.

Some opposition to the proposed bills is based on fears that such measures would chill freedom of speech and be used to prosecute bigoted statements.

The legislation, however, would not affect speech, no matter how unpleasant. But when speech turns into action, such as burning a cross on someone's lawn or painting a swastika on a synagogue, it is no longer just words. Trespassing, defacing of property and similar crimes would carry heavier penalties if bigotry was the driving force behind the action.

Utah was settled by people fleeing hate crimes. Such persecution ought to be understood better here than in many other communities. Yet Utah is the only state in the nation without a hate crimes law. That lack should be remedied at once.