SALT LAKE CITY — A final vote in the Utah Senate on Wednesday officially approved a bill that gives teeth to Utah's hate crime law, sending the bill to Gov. Gary Herbert, who is expected to sign it into law.
The Senate voted 22-3 to give SB103 final passage, concurring with a change made in the Utah House of Representatives the night before to include "political expression" in a list of protected categories of people that includes race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
If perpetrators are found guilty of targeting a protected class, they could be prosecuted with an enhanced penalty under the bill.
"With that amendment, I believe we actually have a better bill," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said on the Senate floor.
But Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, disagreed. She said she was "really, truly disappointed" with the amendment adding political expression as a category, saying it "undermines the real problem."
Still, the bill easily cleared its final hurdle in the Senate after Republicans, including Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, threw their support behind it, saying it sends a message that "hatred and bigotry won't be tolerated in Utah."
"I wish this would solve the problem," Hillyard said. "But the problem of bigotry … will only be solved if we teach our children there are things we do and things we don't do."
The vote in the House — perhaps the largest hurdle for the bill to clear — and now the final vote in the Senate marks a historic time for the Utah Legislature, which for years has resisted changes to its long-standing hate crimes law, despite prosecutors' complaints that the law is weakly written and "unenforceable."
Thatcher for years tried and tried again to push a bill to strengthen Utah's hate crimes legislation, aiming to give protections to marginalized Utahns who have been targets of crimes because of their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or other reasons.
"Very historic day, very emotional day," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill after the vote, adding that marginalized Utahns "now have a measure of justice (they) deserve."
"We as a community can say, 'You're not isolated. You're not alone. You're seen. You're heard,'" Gill said.
But those opposed to the bill worry the law would attempt to police thought and extend additional protections to some groups but not others. Some Republicans still opposed the bill, but largely — even conservatives who had once been staunchly opposed to it — came to support the bill.
Forrest Crawford, a professor at Weber State University who has lobbied for changes to Utah's hate crime law ever since its first statute was established more than 20 years ago, celebrated with Thatcher outside the Senate chamber.
He called the House's vote Tuesday night the "I get it vote."
"It takes time," Crawford said. "It's a cultural shift."
Now, the public needs to continue to be educated about how "hate-motivated violence dynamics work" and "how that plays on not only the individual psyche but also the community they represent," Crawford said.
An emotional Thatcher hugged and high-fived the professor and others after the Senate vote, including Gill and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.8 comments on this story
"It's been a long time. It's been a lot of effort. It's been a lot of work from a lot of people," Thatcher said. "It is not an understatement at all to say I'm standing on the shoulders of giants."
Herbert's office, after the House's striking vote Tuesday night, issued a statement saying the governor expects to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.
"Gov. Herbert appreciates the great work of the Legislature in passing this important piece of legislation, which will serve as a powerful tool in providing critical protections to marginalized groups and persons," the statement said. "He looks forward to it landing on his desk and signing it into law."