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Utah faith leaders refer to Joseph Smith in urging lawmakers to pass victim targeting bill

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of non-Mormon religious leaders cite the murder of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and his brother among their reasons for backing a victim targeting bill in the Utah Legislature.

In a letter urging lawmakers to pass SB86, the Most Rev. Oscar Solis, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, lists several recent and past incidents where racial minorities or churches were attacked.

"The not-so-subtle message to all others of those same race, ethnicities and religions is simple: You don’t belong here, go somewhere else. That was the same message Mormons got from 19th century mobs in Missouri and Illinois: Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered because of their religion," according to the letter to which 23 faith leaders have signed on.

Signers include leaders of Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Unitarian and Jewish congregations.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not among the religious organizations that have signed the letter. A spokesman last week said the church had no comment on the bill.

SB86 would allow prosecutors to seek a one-step increase for offenders convicted of a misdemeanor crime against a person or their property based on a belief or perception of the victim's ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. A class A misdemeanor, for example, could become a third-degree felony at the time of sentencing.

Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he's not interested in going after bigots. He said the proposed law is focused on criminal justice, not social justice.

"I'm interested in stopping people who are using criminal actions to threaten and intimidate entire communities," he said.

The legislation is a "principled" means of giving prosecutors and judges better tools to keep all Utahns safer from those who would use violence to promote their philosophies of racial superiority, religious purity or exclusion, the religious leaders say.

"Message crimes are not ordinary crimes; message crime victims suffer an even greater injustice, because they were singled out for race, or religion, or gender orientation," according to the letter.

The faith leaders say the punishment for those crimes needs to be more severe.

"Some have claimed that this bill is an assault on religious liberty. We believe that it is, in fact, a protection of religious liberty," the letter says.

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, last week said the proposed law would apply differently, for example, to a BYU fan who gets beat up than a University of Utah fan who gets beat up because one affiliates with a religious school and one does not. The offender in the BYU case could received the enhanced sentences, while that would not be true in the U. case, he said.

Adams, who helped broker the compromise lawmakers reached in 2015 to protect both religious liberty and LGBT rights, said he likes more of a "fairness-for-all" approach to Thatcher's bill.

In 2016, the LDS Church raised concerns over proposed hate crimes legislation, saying it could upset the religious liberty and LGBT rights compromise of the year before. The bill's sponsor, former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, blamed the church's statement for dooming the measure.

GOP Senate leaders last year didn't allow Thatcher's legislation to have a committee hearing. The 2018 version is assigned to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

Faith leaders who signed the letter called on state government leaders take prompt action on SB86.

"Utah is too great a place for any of our brothers and sisters to live in fear whether they are in the majority or are part of a vulnerable minority," the letter says.