SALT LAKE CITY — Despite languishing for years, a bill that would add teeth to Utah's hate crime laws has — for the first time — cleared a legislative hurdle that will allow it to be heard by the full Senate.
In an overflowing room of onlookers, the bill sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, got a unanimous vote of approval Thursday from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
"I have never prepared more, nor been more nervous for a presentation than I am for this one," Thatcher said when explaining his bill to the committee. "That's because of the tremendous weight of so many groups and so many people across the state of Utah waiting for this action from the Legislature."
Thatcher's bill, SB103, would bolster Utah's hate crime statutes, which currently only allow penalty enhancements for misdemeanor counts and not felony counts. It also adds a list of specific protected classes, including age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, homelessness, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation, among others.
The bill comes after Thatcher attempts for several years to garner support from lawmakers for such legislation, but he found it difficult to gain traction. It was never given a chance to be heard in a committee until Thursday.
After Thursday's vote, Thatcher hugged supporters and celebrated as he walked out of the committee room, but told reporters he expects to run into opposition on the Senate floor. He said when it comes down to a vote, it will be close.
"This is not a done deal. This is not over yet," he said. "Victory laps would be very premature. But it does feel damn good to be on the field."
'We will do better'
Committee support for the bill comes after federal prosecutors earlier this week filed hate crime charges against a man who police say was racially motivated when he assaulted a man in a Salt Lake tire shop. The suspect is charged with walking into the shop shouting that he wanted to "kill Mexicans" before striking a Hispanic man in the head with a metal pole.
State prosecutors declined to file hate crimes charges, saying Utah's current law wouldn't allow them to do so.
Pointing to that case, Thatcher told lawmakers, "I hope that, like me, you are disappointed that the Lopez family had to turn to the federal government for protection of their civil liberties instead of their state government. I believe that is a failure on our part."
"But today," he added, "we have an opportunity to send a clear message that we will do better."
The support for Thatcher's bill also comes after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clarified last month that it would not oppose hate crimes legislation.
Four years ago, when former Sen. Steve Urquhart attempted to pass similar legislation, Thatcher said Urquhart "was so certain that I wouldn't listen on this issue that he didn't even bother coming to talk to me about his bill because he knew that as a staunch conservative I wouldn't listen."
"I have to be honest, that shames me," Thatcher said. "And I hope you have seen over the past four years I have worked very, very hard to go out of my way to listen to all sides and to consider what is truly the most appropriate thing for us to do."
The Utah Attorney General's Office, local prosecutors, the Utah Sentencing Commission and other Utah prosecuting groups have backed the bill, calling for more clarity to the law to help hold perpetrators accountable.
"There is no disagreement between all of these groups as to what we need as a state to better provide justice to our citizens," Thatcher said.
But former state lawmaker LaVar Christensen, who years ago helped draft Utah's current statute, defended the law as sufficient.
"The merits of what we have is so outstanding," Christensen said, warning that "in our zeal to show our compassion" lawmakers will "skip over current law" if they pass Thatcher's bill.
"It's not as if it's broken," Christensen said. "It's not as if it's not working."
But Thatcher — and a coalition of prosecuting agencies — disagree.
Utah's current hate crimes law passed about two decades ago was "well-intentioned," Thatcher said, but added that because it failed to specify classes, "in 19 years there has never been a successful prosecution."
"So at this point, I think it's safe to say it's not working as intended," he said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said there's been "frustration" among victims and prosecutors "to not have a workable statute that can offer a sanctuary of support," nor a law that "appropriately recognizes the kind of harm" hate crimes can cause, as well as the "fear that it sends through these different communities."
"This has been long overdue," Gill said. "And for those communities that have been personally impacted, this is not an academic exercise. This is something real."
Gill told the committee of something he experienced not long after 9/11 when he was walking out of the courthouse and a person in a passing truck shouted at him with a racial slur and told him to "go home or we'll (expletive) kill you and your family."
"Now at that moment those were just words," Gill said. "But I know what I felt at that moment. And what I felt was that I felt fear for my family. I thought immediately of my members in the Indian community or people who look like me. I thought about my children and my friends … and that fear is genuine."
Groups including Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, have also called for changes to Utah's hate crimes laws to help better protect Utahns who they say suffer from increased suicide risks.
Troy Williams, Equality Utah's executive director, pointed to a recent video of a downtown incident being investigated as a potential hate crime in which a man appears to attack another man after asking him if he was gay.
Watching the video, Williams said the LGBTQ community "all felt he was striking us."
Williams called Thatcher a "champion" for pushing ahead with the bill, despite an uphill battle.
"As our nation becomes so fractured and polarized politically, it is so beautiful to see so many communities coming together in solidarity and taking a stand," he said.
Connor Boyack, Libertas Institute president, argued against the bill, not to "defend hate crimes," he said, but because he has concerns with unintended consequences of the bill.
For example, Boyack listed several scenarios — such as someone vandalizing a war veteran's car — that could inadvertently fall under the hate crimes legislation. He also pointed out the list of protected classes isn't exhaustive and is therefore problematic.
"We all have stories to share," Boyack said, noting he was "horribly bullied in high school because he was a late bloomer" and that he was "stuffed in trash cans" and "assaulted."
"Height wasn't in here," he said. "Why not?"
Similarly, Boyack said while he was helping negotiate medical cannabis legislation last year, "I had to call police because my children were being threatened by a man online."
"Political affiliation isn't in here," he said.15 comments on this story
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, also opposed the bill on similar arguments, calling the list of protected classes problematic because it leaves people out.
"Why the list?" she asked. "I still didn't see me on that list."
No lawmakers on the Senate committee spoke against the bill before voting. However, Sen. Lyle Hillyard said that while he supports its "message," it doesn't solve societal problems with hate.
"Oh how I wish passing this law will solve the problem But it won't," Hillyard, R-Logan, said. "But I think it gives enough of a signal that it will help."