Opponents of efforts to pass enforceable hate crimes legislation are wary of a new approach that longtime sponsor Rep. David Litvack hopes will be an "olive branch" in the controversial debate.

Litvack, D-Salt Lake, told the Deseret Morning News editorial board that he hopes the new approach he's considering will be palatable to conservatives who have voted it down in the past.

In 1999, the late Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake, sponsored a bill that would enhance by one step penalties for crimes committed against groups categorized by race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age and gender.

That bill has repeatedly failed amid criticism that victims who aren't in a protected category wouldn't get equal protection. A new draft version eliminates protected categories and replaces the enhancement of a charge with an aggravating factor.

"Maybe we don't get to where we wanted to . . . but we do take a step in the right direction," Litvack said.

Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who voted against the bill last session, said, "without the categories, I'd be seriously looking at it."

However, he added that "if this is giving special protection to the gay community, I'm going to oppose it."

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, who voted against the bill in a House committee, said he'd "have to really look at it and think about what the ramifications would be."

Oda said he opposed last year's version because he said it would provide unequal protection to crime victims who belong to a protected class.

"An assault is an assault," Oda said. "The penalties shouldn't be any less for a group that's not included. Maybe (Litvack's) come upon an answer. Until I've studied it, I can't give an answer."

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, which has long opposed the legislation, said "it's just more of the same thing — enhanced penalties because of who the crime is committed against."

Instead of a compromise, Ruzicka said it looks like a desperate attempt to pass a hate crimes bill just for the sake of passing it.

"It's still a hate crimes bill that doesn't treat all people equally under the law," Ruzicka said. "If we need to enhance penalties, it needs to be across the board for all people for the crime that's committed, not for who it's committed against."

Litvack said he hopes that Buttars, and other lawmakers, are willing to talk to him before deciding to vote against the bill.

"Obviously it's going to still be a challenge and we have our work cut out for us," Litvack said. "It wouldn't be the Utah Legislature any other way."

Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is a member of a discussion group that came up with the new approach, and at least some high-profile Republicans are keeping an open mind. Litvack said he wants to meet with Senate President John Valentine and House Speaker Greg Curtis.

Valentine, R-Orem, hasn't speculated on whether he'd support the bill but has said he'd like to see the details.

And Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has met with Litvack and "is reviewing it with great interest," according to Huntsman's spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi.

Litvack is also still working with longtime supporters of the bill.

Forrest Crawford, Weber State University education professor who was part of the discussion group, said the new approach is not the ideal, but it provides "more of an opportunity to penalize perpetrators."

"I feel very optimistic about trying to bring together a wide array of voices and coalitions to really take a hard look at this," Crawford said.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, has looked at a ballot initiative, which she says she'll pursue if no hate crimes legislation passes this year.

On the new approach, she said she hasn't had time to examine it but is concerned about its enforceability. She also expressed concerns about training law enforcement officers and attorneys on how to use the bill.

"I would just like to see a good hate crimes bill pass," Williams said. "Utah has had a very good hate crimes bill. Unfortunately it has to come to making a compromise."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com