SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Senate Republicans aren't behind a hate crimes bill to enhance the punishment for targeting victims because of race, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristics, Senate President Stuart Adams said.
Adams, R-Layton, said Friday he had hoped there would be more support for SB103, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, because of changes he helped make at the beginning of the session to add new categories of victims.
Those including targeting someone because of where they attend college, Adams said, so a hate crime against a University of Utah student wouldn't be treated differently than the same offense against a Brigham Young University student.
"With those categories, I’m fine with the bill personally," Adams said. "However, I found out that me being fine with it doesn't mean the rest of the caucus is. So right now, I think, last we checked there doesn't appear to be enough votes."
Thatcher struggled to come up with a reason why Senate Republicans are split on his bill.
"You'd have to ask them individually, but most of them say, 'I just don't like it.' And how do you overcome that?" he asked. "If you can give me a specific concern you have, then I can point out how we circumvent that issue."
Already, Thatcher said he's been willing to add "absolutely every single thing that was brought to me as a concern. There's age. There's color. There's blindness. There's familial status. Marital status. Homelessness" and law enforcement.
"Really, whatever somebody wanted to get them to yes, we put it in there, as long as it is constitutional, enforceable and does not exclude anyone," he said of what will be a substitute version of his bill. "Let's get something passed."
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said his concern about hate crimes legislation is having "a broad enough base that we're not creating select classes. … There's a lot of hate crimes. Let's make sure we have a bill that covers all of them."
Senate Majority Assistant Whip Ann Milner, R-Ogden, agreed.
"This is really hard," Milner said. "Sometimes it's really easy to just say, ‘Let's focus on a minority group and not say it's important that the same protection may lead to a majority group.'"
Thatcher, who has tried to pass hate crimes legislation in past sessions, wasn't expecting it to be so difficult this year after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indicated it would not stand in the way of hate crimes legislation.
"If the church really was the holdup the whole time, then why am I still having to work so dang hard to get votes?" Thatcher asked. "Some people just fundamentally have an issue with treating crimes differently."
Marty Stephens, the church's director of government and community relations, told the Deseret News just before the session started in late January that he wanted to make it clear that the church does not oppose hate crimes legislation.
"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," Stephens said then.
Thatcher said the 23-member GOP Senate caucus is divided nearly evenly, although several of his colleagues are "on the fence" and still may be persuaded to back the bill.
He said if can win over a majority of the caucus, he'll ask that the bill finally get a hearing after being assigned to a committee more than two weeks ago. If the bill is heard, Thatcher gives it a strong chance of passing the Legislature.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said he'll sponsor the bill in the House if it can get through the Senate.
"Conceptwise, I think there's support for it," Perry said, especially given the church's statements. "I believe that helps. And we're seeing more and more of it. … We can't have the targeting. It's just not acceptable."
Republicans hold a supermajority in both the House and the Senate.
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said all six Democrats in the Senate back Thatcher's bill.
"This is an important bill to our constituents, and to myself personally, and to a number of people in my community," said Kitchen, the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature.
Earlier this week, a pride flag hanging outside the Salt Lake City restaurant owned by Kitchen and his husband, Moudi Sbeity, was vandalized.
"These things happen every day in our community," Kitchen said, and send a message.
"In high school, you might see something written on your locker. That might be the first step toward being beat up in the parking lot. We need to be mindful of these elevated offenses for people who are targeted for who they are," he said.
Utahns, Kitchen said, "by and large, support individualism and the belief that we can all live our own life as we desire to and we can present ourselves as we choose. As long as we're not hurting anyone else, then live and let live."