Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Schoolchildren tour the Capitol during the 2019 legislative session in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.

Hate is one of the most destructive attitudes in any society. It raises tensions and can polarize and divide neighborhoods, towns and cities. While we all have the right to freely think and believe as we wish, we also have an obligation to protect each other from criminal acts, especially those motivated by prejudice. Targeting a crime victim because of hate for a group of people sends a message to that whole community that their very existence is not worthy of protection, respect or dignity. It always pushes our society further apart. Sadly, these kinds of crimes are on the rise both in the U.S. and in Utah.

Hate crimes are especially heinous. They send a message that “You don’t belong, and you may be next.” These types of crimes can plant seeds of terrorism in our country. They impact whole communities, not just one individual. The impact of a hate crime lingers and extends beyond the specific victim. Hate crimes can cause members of targeted communities to become angry, suspicious and fearful. Often, they can be too fearful to even report the crime to the police. All but five other states in the U.S. have laws protecting people against these kinds of crimes. Yet Utah still fails to have an effective law.

The law we have was enacted about 25 years ago, yet since it first passed not a single successful case has been prosecuted because it was so poorly written. It is unenforceable. Salt Lake County’s district attorney recently “called (it) ‘worthless’" after authorities were unable to bring hate crime charges against a man who allegedly attacked a Latino father and son while yelling that he wanted to “kill Mexicans.” When these crimes cannot be prosecuted due to inadequate laws, it often makes people who have already experienced extreme trauma to feel re-victimized. Our wholly inadequate law prevents our local authorities from doing their job. The only way for Utah to handle these types of crimes is to try and get the FBI involved in our local issues. According to the ACLU, “Prosecutors consider it unenforceable because it is vague and does not include the commonly listed protected classes. ... In a court challenge, the Utah Court of Appeals said the law lacked clear legislative intent and noted it was not a true hate crimes law … because of its lack of classifications.”

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While a few other laws exist that protect some categories of people such as the elderly, military members and peace officers such as police and firefighters, most of us remain unprotected. Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R-West Valley City) has a current bill proposal for Section 76-3-203.14 of the Utah Code which is SB103. This bill, if passed, will provide protection to all Utahns in a crime when it is proven that the victim is targeted for personal attributes such as race, religion, ethnicity, etc. No group is favored over another. It would be immoral and cruel to have a law that doesn’t apply to everyone equally. A healthy society is dependent on connection and belonging. Crimes that are fueled by hatred drive disconnection, insecurity, worthlessness and fear. Suicidal ideation is linked to thwarted belonging. We have a great need to do better in this area as our Utah suicide rates continue to climb at an alarming rate. “Compared with other recent crime victims ... hate-crime survivors manifested significantly more symptoms of depression, anger, anxiety and posttraumatic stress," reads a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. "They also displayed significantly more crime-related fears and beliefs, lower sense of mastery, and more attributions of their personal setbacks….”

In Utah we need an effective victim targeting bill. We need to stand against bullying of all kinds, not just in our school yards. The assertion that “all men are created equal” is one of the most important ideals in our Declaration of Independence. Just as important is the statement that all have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” A right not to feel threatened is fundamental to these freedoms.