Efforts to pass a hate-crimes bill is shaping into a bipartisan effort in the Senate, where it will make its first appearance this legislative session.
The bill that would add enhanced penalties to crimes based on hate will be sponsored by Sens. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, and Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights.
"We are taking a little bit of a different approach," said Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, who is the bill's House sponsor for the fifth year, though it's been before lawmakers for nine years. The Senate bill is identical to Litvack's HB50.
Litvack said this is the first year the effort has a paid lobbyist, and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Friday told reporters, "I'm open to it."
Public opinion is behind the bill, according to a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, which indicated 64 percent support stronger hate-crime laws.
The bill even brought Texas resident Louvon Byrd Harris, sister of James L. Byrd, a man brutally killed because of his race, to Utah legislators Friday, with hopes her family's story will encourage representatives to pass the bill.
Following her visit with lawmakers, Harris met with community groups that support the bill at a Utah Black Leadership Foundation event Friday evening.
"I am here because my family was a victim of a hate crime," Harris said. "We are saying if you commit this kind of crime, you have to pay for the consequences."
However, the bill has faced consistent opposition by lawmakers who oppose creating special protected classes. Law enforcement officers have said the bill is virtually unenforceable because it has no defined classes.
The bill would increase by one step the penalty for any crime based on "bias or prejudice" based on attributes that include but are not limited to race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age or gender.
For example, a class A misdemeanor would become a third-degree felony.
The list is based on classifications already in laws that have been upheld before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, it seems opposition to the bill has revolved around that list.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said he opposes the measure because it gives special rights to certain groups.
"Anybody that viciously attacks someone else, you have to call it a hate crime," he said. "How are you going to define a hate crime?"
Bell said he supports hate crimes because when someone is "a victim because he or she is a Jew or a Mormon or black or whatever . . . the perpetrator is assaulting the class. The true hate crime is not done against the person, it's done against the class."
Lobbyist Dave Spatafore of Capstone Strategies is representing Utahns Together Against Hate, which supports pursuing enhanced penalties for hate crimes.
"The time has come we really need to put a face on hate crimes in the state of Utah and become more protective of our community," he said. In all, Spatafore said, 44 states have enforceable hate-crimes statutes.