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House embraces, quickly rebuffs hate-crimes bill

Did you hear the one about the Republican Mormon and the Democrat Jew who went to lunch at the Pakistani restaurant?

If it sounds like a joke — it isn't.

Over spicy sauces and flat bread at Salt Lake's Curry-in-a-Hurry, Reps. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, and Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, forged a partnership that accomplished something not seen in six years: They got a hate crimes bill past the House of Representatives.

The 38-35 victory was only temporary. Less than 24 hours later, the House called it back for reconsideration after some said they were uncomfortable with a vote taken only out of "courtesy" to its sponsors. Fearing substitutes and amendments would change their intent, Litvack and Ferrin pulled the bill before it got another hearing.

But the unlikely duo both claim victory and expect the issue to be raised again next year.

"The fact that it got 38 votes was not a courtesy," said Litvack as the Legislature neared the close of its 2003 session Wednesday. "The fact is we passed this body. I think now we have momentum."

Evidence of that can be found in the 19 Republican votes that helped pass the bill a week ago.

"I think we're in a place now where Republicans can talk about the issue," said Ferrin. "In the past, hate crimes have been seen as a Democrat issue to oppose. Republicans have never been challenged to believe that this could be a Republican issue."

HB85 sought to increase the penalties for convicted criminals whose victim selection was motivated by hatred or bias. Police and prosecutors have long sought a tougher and more specific hate crimes statute than is currently in state statutes.

Ferrin, who had twice voted against Litvak's previous attempts to strengthen the hate crimes law, never thought the issue could be his. But time, thought and education have moved him to "make a new decision based on new information," he said. His conversion began even before the lunch with Litvack at the same restaurant where a post 9/11 hate crime was committed and the perpetrator is now serving a four-year federal prison sentence.

Before the 2002 session, Ferrin even opened a file and considered running a hate-crimes bill of his own. The filed remained blank.

"I didn't really know what to put in it," he said.

Of the 45 states with hate-crimes laws, all but Utah and Georgia list groups. The Georgia law is currently being challenged in court and Utah's law, which was enacted in 1992 and has rarely been used, was struck down by the Court of Appeals as too vague.

In the past, the mostly conservative Legislature has scuttled hate-crimes bills over concerns that the legislation creates special protections for certain classes of citizens, especially homosexuals.

The list of groups included in HB85 contained race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age or gender.

The bill had the support of Utah's Attorney General, the State Board of Pardons, the Hispanic and Black Republican caucuses, and religious groups. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement saying it did not oppose the bill.

Still, the Republican Central Committee denounced HB85 in a resolution following the LDS Church's announcement. The committee said the bill would open the door to prosecution of "thought crimes." Resolution author Frank Mylar says that hate crimes laws have led to the persecution of religious beliefs in communities across the United States and Canada.

Mylar said he believes in the principle that "all men are created equal," and that existing laws already cover hate crimes offenses. He does not believe that adding sentencing enhancements into the criminal code will get at the "root problems" associated with these types of crimes.

"What you really need to do is change hearts," said Mylar, who added that he welcomes further debate on the issue.

To do that, Litvack and Ferrin both say the coming months will include more dialogue, community outreach and education.

"When you sit down and actually talk to someone about the bill and what it does, it makes sense," said Ferrin, who said he plans to talk about his position with his Utah County constituents and in Republican Party caucuses.

It was just that kind of effort with House members that got HB85 its 38 votes. The question will be can a year of conversation put a tougher hate crimes law — one that includes all Utahns — in place?

"Maybe," Ferrin said. "It's started . . . we'll see."