SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator has again introduced legislation to toughen the punishment for crimes targeting people because of their personal characteristics, including sexual orientation or gender identity.
After lawmakers voted down a controversial hate crimes bill in 2016 and stifled a different approach last year, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is back with another proposal that he says focuses on criminal justice not social justice.
"I'm not interested in going after people who are bigots," he said. "I'm interested in stopping people who are using criminal actions to threaten and intimidate entire communities."
SB86 would allow prosecutors to seek a one-step increase for offenders convicted of a misdemeanor crime against a person or their property based on a belief or perception of the victim's ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. A class A misdemeanor, for example, could become a third-degree felony at the time of sentencing.
The proposed law would not affect free speech and other constitutional rights. It doesn't create a new protected class of people except for the purpose of enhanced criminal penalties.
Derek Monson, executive director of the conservative Sutherland Institute, said the think tank is sympathetic to what Thatcher is trying to address, but there's too much "baggage" from past hate crimes or victim selection legislation. He said the sense that such bills tried to advance certain groups at the expense of others still lingers.
"The problem with that is the real community divisions that that kind of approach created. It's really just a byproduct of the culture war," he said. "That history of division hasn't been able to be overcome."
Even if the proposed law doesn't have that effect in the eyes of the proponents, if it's actually doing that, Sutherland would have a concern, Monson said.
Thatcher said the debate should focus on what's in the legislation.
"Don't argue against things that are not in the bill. This does offer equal protection under the law. This does protect First Amendment free speech, and it does apply based on actions and not thoughts or feelings," he said.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, isn't sold on the bill, nor are Senate Republicans in general.
Adams said the proposed law would apply differently, for example, to a BYU fan who gets beat up than a University of Utah fan who gets beat up because one affiliates with a religious school and one does not. The offender in the BYU case could received the enhanced sentences, while that would not be true in the U. case, he said.
"I'd like to see something that protects everyone, more of a fairness-for-all approach," said Adams, who helped broker the compromise lawmakers reached in 2015 to protect both religious liberty and LGBT rights.
Thatcher said the bill is "not about hitting somebody that's different than you. This is about hunting, specifically going out of your way to target someone because you want to send a message."
Thatcher has been amassing support for the bill among cities and counties in the state, as well as churches and advocacy groups.
Virtually every faith-based community in the state backs the effort, Thatcher said.
"Unfortunately, the only thing we're getting from the LDS Church is no comment," he said.
In 2016, the church raised concerns of proposed hate crimes legislation, saying it could upset the religious liberty and LGBT rights compromise of the year before. The bill's sponsor, former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, blamed the church's statement for dooming the measure.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has stayed silent on Thatcher's bill. A spokesman last Friday said the church has no comment on SB86.
So far, Salt Lake City, West Jordan, South Salt Lake, Beaver County, Moab and Midvale have passed resolutions urging the Legislature to strengthen laws for crimes that target people because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
Other backers include Attorney General Sean Reyes, the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, the NAACP Salt Lake branch and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Equality Utah is "eager" to work with Thatcher on the bill, said Troy Williams, executive director.5 comments on this story
"Utah's antiquated hate crimes statute is broken and unenforceable. We will be working with criminal justice organizations and other community stakeholders to pass a law that includes and protects everyone," he said.
Thatcher said he knows the bill, one that he says he's more emotionally invested in than any other since being elected in 2010, will be a tough sell in the Legislature.
"We're hoping that these allies will be enough move the needle on this bill," he said. "And if it's not, it will come back next year and the year after that and the year after that and the year after that."