SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed new Utah hate crimes law would be any "easy follow-up" to the state's religious rights and anti-discrimination bill, says the Republican senator who helped push that measure through the Legislature last year.
The hang-up in passing an anti-discrimination measure over the years was including sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected classes, said Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.
"Well, we already did that. Just like it made sense to do it in the nondiscrimination law, it makes sense to do it in the hate crimes law," he said.
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 provides for enhanced penalties where those beliefs motivated the crime.
Urquhart was a key player in the bill the Legislature passed in 2015 that protects religious liberties and bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and housing.
"I think it's a pretty easy follow-up to what we did last year," he said.
Bill Duncan, director of the Sutherland Institute's Center for Family and Society, said lawmakers wisely took a fairly balanced approach in the religious rights and nondiscrimination legislation.
"We feel like the bill needs to be drafted a little more in those kinds of terms," he said. "We think the bill lacks some balance."
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, according to language in SB107.
But Duncan said that's not enough. He wants to see a specific provision that "good faith statements of political or religious opinion can't be used as evidence of motive in a hate crimes prosecution."
Past legislatures didn't want to include sexual orientation in the state's hate crime law because they saw it as a slippery slope to legalized gay marriage.
"That issue has been settled by the Supreme Court of the United States of America," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. "That rationalization is no longer there."
The tragedy in lawmakers not extending protections to the LGBT community in past hate crimes legislation is that they precluded any meaningful law protecting African-American, religious or ethnic communities as well, he said.
Gill said the way the current law is written makes it useless for prosecuting hate crimes.
"Most prosecutors say it's not worth the trouble, not worth the paper it's written on," he said.
Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Thursday that 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."
Urquhart said he also used to think a crime was a crime, and if you were a victim, it didn't matter what your religion or ethnicity was. But, he said, he has realized that singling someone out based on their characteristics makes it different.
"Crimes are punished by intent. The intent is to be a crime against whoever fits in that group," Urquhart said.
Gill said there are two victims in a hate crime — the person assaulted and the group to which they belong.