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Hate-crimes bill stalls again

Gay-lesbian category may be main hurdle

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Rep. David Litvack said HB68 would create "a more just community."

Rep. David Litvack said HB68 would create “a more just community.”

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

The year it appeared in this newspaper was 1991, although it could have easily run in almost any year after that — including this one, when a fourth attempt at hate-crimes legislation by Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, failed.

It's been that way each year since 1992, when then-Salt Lake Democratic Rep. Frank Pignanelli managed to slip a watered-down hate-crimes bill into law. Dismissed as overly broad and unenforceable, the law has long needed a specific list of those included under its protections. That list would include age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, national origin, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Police and prosecutors have asked for it. Religious, minority and community groups have lobbied for it. Even the usually silent Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has expressed "no objection to the bill as drafted."

But, Utah lawmakers will not pass it, expressing opposition to singling out specific groups for special protection, particularly gays and lesbians.

Litvack's HB68 would have allowed judges to enhance the penalties for those who commit bias crimes and choose a victim based on membership in any of those group classifications.

"I'm not even a big enhancement (law) person, but for me it feels justified," Litvack said. "It feels to me like this is the way we become a more inclusive community, a more equitable community, a more just community."

Last year, Litvack and co-sposor Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, managed to briefly pass a bill, but the House killed the measure a day later In 2004, HB68 failed to get past the House Judiciary Committee, even after committee members whittled the measure's troublesome list to match one already in U.S. civil rights legislation passed in 1964.

Since its inception, the hate-crimes issue has been turned like a Rubik's cube to satisfy concerns. This year, Litvak and Sen. James Evans, R-Salt Lake, worked on compromise language to ensure that no group could be excluded from protections.

In addition to objections of protecting certain groups, some say the issue pushes Utah dangerously toward legislating thought, although HB68 spelled out that thought alone could not be prosecuted.

That argument fit for HB246, a bill sponsored this year by Rep. Neil Hansen, D-North Ogden, which also didn't pass but would have made cross burning on public property a third-degree felony if the intent of the act was to intimidate another person.

During the hate-crime bill's lone hearing, public testimony focused on sexual orientation and the fear that its inclusion is an endorsement of gay and lesbian lifestyles.

Opponents claimed Litvack is part of the "radical gay agenda" and that HB68 would open the door to gay marriage.

Litvack denies that motivation and said he never sought to make sexual orientation the bill's major issue. Nor is he convinced that is its only impediment.

But this year more than any other, fellow lawmakers were more direct about the issue, he said. Several said the bill would pass if "sexual orientation" were removed.

"That's not a compromise I'm willing to make," Litvack said. "People may accuse me of wanting to have it all, but I think it would be a huge step backward to have the list and not include it." Undeterred, Litvack will bring a hate crimes bill back to the table in 2005 and said he hopes voters will make an issue of it as they consider candidates running for state offices this year.

"The challenge is to continue to educate, continue the dialogue," he said. "We accomplish alot by having the dialogue at the forefront."

E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com