SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not stand in the way of legislation to toughen the punishment for crimes targeting people because of their personal characteristics, including sexual orientation or gender identity.
"We want to make it clear that we do not oppose the hate crimes legislation," Marty Stephens, the church's director of government and community relations, told the Deseret News Wednesday, adding that the church would not speak to the particulars of a bill.
"We think this is an issue that the Legislature should rightfully wrestle with and come up with good public policy so that people are protected, whatever the Legislature feels is the best way to do that," said Stephens, a former Republican Utah House speaker.
That could go a long way toward the Utah Legislature at least discussing a proposed hate crimes law for the first time since 2016.
"Really? Wow, that is fantastic," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, adding he has tried for two years to get the church to weigh in. "Hopefully, that ends the blockade on this bill getting a hearing."
After lawmakers voted down a controversial hate crimes bill in 2016 and Republican legislative leaders stifled proposals the past two years, Thatcher intends to make another run at it in 2019. The Utah Legislature's 45-day session starts Monday.
Thatcher has not yet introduced what he calls a "victim targeting" bill rather than a hate crimes bill.
"The reason I haven’t made it public yet is because I keep waiting for the people who have concerns to come and tell me what their concerns are," he said. "The fact that none of the concerns are being verbalized should tell you everything you need to know."
The bill will be based on legislation drafted by the Anti-Defamation League, which other states have adopted, Thatcher said.
Thatcher's proposal last year sought to 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
The proposed law would not have affected free speech and other constitutional rights and didn't create a new protected class of people except for the purpose of enhanced criminal penalties.
"I'm not interested in going after people who are bigots," Thatcher has said. "I'm interested in stopping people who are using criminal actions to threaten and intimidate entire communities."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not have a comment on Thatcher's bills last year or the year before.
In 2016, GOP Sen. Steve Urquhart blamed a statement from the church for dooming his hate crimes measure, which the Senate voted down.
The church voiced concern at the time about any legislation, including the hate crimes bill, that could upset the hard-struck compromise lawmakers reached in 2015 to protect both religious liberty and LGBT rights in housing and employment.
"I believe that Steve’s blaming the church and perhaps rightfully so because we asked that no bills pass that session," Stephens said. He said the church's opposition was only for that year.
Urquhart, who has repeatedly criticized the church's handling of the issue, called that acknowledgement "wonderful."
"This really makes my day to hear that. I'm excited that they're not opposed to hate crimes legislation," he said.
Thatcher picked up the bill after Urquhart retired from the Legislature following the 2016 legislative session.
"We keep getting brought into this issue by people saying because we asked for the one-year moratorium in 2016, and that legislators believe the church is opposed to hate crimes legislation and that's the reason that this has not passed for the last two years," he said.
Stephens called the church's current position a "clarification" because people have ascribed its opposition as applying to 2017, 2018 and into this year.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said the church's position could "truly be a game changer." Both the LGBTQ community and Latter-day Saints have been victims of hate crimes, he said, adding that people shouldn't be targeted because of who they are.
"It's been so frustrating that we don't have an enforceable statute," William said. "We hope the lawmakers will take the legislation seriously this session."