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Objections to a hate-crimes bill don't fly

Once more, please, with a little less feeling.

David Litvack is a persistent sort. But then, most people with causes are.

Litvack is the Democratic Utah lawmaker who keeps trying to get a hate-crimes bill through the Legislature. Lots of lawmakers have championed causes through the years with all the zeal of a kamikaze squadron. They knew they couldn't win without compromise, but they just kept ramming away.

Litvack is different. This year he is preparing a compromise version of his bill. It is, as he said last week, "an olive branch" to his opponents. "I'm hoping they'll accept that and we can all walk away being proud of what we've done."

Maybe, but more likely he'll just get closer to outing the real objections of his opponents, whatever those may be.

Last year, the opposition came from people who didn't like the list of potential hate crimes included in his bill. That list included attacks against anyone on account of sexual orientation, which was interpreted as code for putting the state's stamp of approval on a gay lifestyle.

This time, the version he gave the Deseret Morning News editorial board includes no list at all. It simply requires a judge, or the Board of Pardons and Parole, to take into account whether a convicted offender chose his or her victim based on that person's membership in a group. This would apply even to those who are attacked because they are perceived to be a member of a group. It also applies to property owners or renters who become victims for a similar reason.

"Member of a group," it says. Four words instead of a list, but four words that are big enough to include the entire human experience.

Even if you're not a "joiner," you belong to some sort of group. You're in a family or you have an ethnic background. You may be bald or overweight or have disgusting nose hairs. If someone attacks you and you can prove in court that the attackers were trying to send a message of intimidation to everyone else like you, you qualify.

It's about as watered-down as a day-old cup of soda pop left in the car, but it's still a hate-crimes bill. And, not surprisingly, it still has its detractors.

Gayle Ruzicka, the powerful president of the Utah Eagle Forum, was quick to pounce. "It's still a hate-crimes bill that doesn't treat all people equally under the law," she said. The crime should be the thing, she said, not the person against whom the crime is committed.

Let's look at that. Generally speaking, two objections keep coming up again and again in the hate-crimes debate. Ruzicka identified one. It is that such a law would treat some people differently than others.

Last year, my colleague Marjorie Cortez came up with the best response to that one. Lots of laws on Utah's books already do just such a thing, she wrote. If you assault a pregnant woman, you will serve more time than if you assaulted an un-pregnant one, regardless of her age. If you hit a school employee or a police officer or a doctor, you'll serve more time than if you hit a newspaper writer, even though we all might feel the same pain.

If you're a really bad person and you kill a political candidate, and it can be proved in court that you did so because of the victim's "position, act, capacity or candidacy," the law requires the charge against you to be capital murder. The same goes for a long list of public officials. Kill a regular person and the charge could be less severe.

The point is that there is a difference between killing someone because they stand between you and a cash register and killing someone because they hold a position that represents civilized society itself. Lawmakers always have understood this.

Similarly, there is a difference between an ordinary crime and one intended to make an entire class of people scared. It is a separate type of crime for which separate penalties should apply.

The second objection is that a hate-crimes law would punish thoughts. Perhaps, but no more so than when a judge or jury has to decide whether a murder was premeditated or whether someone attacked a candidate because the person was a candidate.

(A third common objection is that there is no such thing as crime that is not done out of hate, but that is ridiculous on its face. A meth addict who ransacks your home doesn't hate you any more than does any other stranger.)

Litvack says his aim is to at least give victims an official acknowledgment that the humiliation they suffered was more than just vandalism or assault or some other category of crime.

I can't imagine the real reason lawmakers might reject this watered-down version.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com