SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator introduced a bill Thursday to include sexual orientation, sexual identity and other categories of people in Utah's hate crimes law.
Current law doesn't identify specific groups, and prosecutors rarely use it.
Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart's bill, SB107, would more clearly define a hate crime as an offense against a person or person's property based on a belief or perception about their ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. It also provides for enhanced penalties for someone convicted of a hate crime.
Urquhart of St. George, last year co-sponsored Utah's law that protects religious rights and bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and housing.
Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, said the hate crimes law on the books isn't working.
"It's a toothless tiger," he said. "The words hate, bias and prejudice don't actually appear in the statute, so who are we protecting?"
Williams said a broad coalition, including the ACLU of Utah, is working with Urquhart for a "robust" law that protects all Utahns.
"The straight, white Mormon will be protected by our law as well as the African-American, gay Muslim will be protected by our law," he said.
Whether Utah needs a law to step up penalties for hate crimes was a matter of heated debate since the first bill passed in 1992, after being stripped of its teeth. Prosecutors called that law unenforceable. Courts have called it a civil rights statute.
Past legislatures didn't want to include sexual orientation because they saw it as a slippery slope to legalized gay marriage. The landscape changed, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue and legalized gay marriage.
Gov. Gary Herbert said he has not seen the proposed legislation but questioned the need.
"It's hard for me to imagine anybody committing crimes, particularly violent crimes, without some kind of hate behind it," he said. "If I kill you, you're just as dead whether I hated you or I love you and killed you. I don't understand how that works. Certainly, I think it's worth a discussion, but we keep creating categories."
The governor said he sees everyone as Americans.
"I just see it that way. So male, female; religious, nonreligious; black, white; LGBT, straight; it doesn’t matter to me. If you do violence, you ought to be punished for it," Herbert said.
According to the FBI's most recent Hate Crime Statistics report, there were 59 reported hate crimes in Utah in 2013. Of that total, 36 were based on race with the remainder based on religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability.
The bill would allow prosecutors to bump the level of a crime up one step for both misdemeanors and felonies, raising a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, for example.
According to the bill, the law would not affect or limit a person's right to the lawful expression of free speech or other recognized rights under the Utah or U.S. constitutions
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche