SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A long-stalled measure to strengthen Utah’s hate crime law is poised to become law after a final vote at the Legislature on Wednesday.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert called it a powerful tool to protect marginalized groups and people and said he’s looking forward to signing it into law.
The plan had been stuck at the GOP-dominated Legislature for years. But a groundswell of support in Utah picked up steam after the November beating of a Latino man in Salt Lake City.
Even though police say the attacker acknowledged wanting to “kill Mexicans,” prosecutors said the state’s law couldn’t be used to charge him with a hate crime because it doesn’t protect specific groups, among other deficiencies. The man has been charged in federal court instead.
The legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher creates stiffer penalties for people convicted of targeting someone because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other factors. The Utah House on Tuesday added political expression to that list after concerns about conservatives being targeted. The Senate approved that change with a final vote on Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla said the political-expression addition could undermine the original intent of protecting minority groups, but ultimately voted in favor. Supporters said it will protect civil rights and makes a statement against violence targeting entire groups of people.
“This is a historic vote, and a new day for Utah,” said Troy Williams with the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Utah. “It’s a win for our entire state.”
The measure encountered opposition from people who worried about singling out certain groups for protections. They pointed out that stiffer penalties won’t erase racism.
Republican Sen. Lyle Hillyard acknowledged that, but said the measure is nevertheless an important signal.
“I think it’s important that we as a body give a message, not so much to the victim, but to the people of the state of Utah that bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated,” he said.
The bill to strengthen it stalled in 2016. Supporters said its prospects were hurt when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged lawmakers, many of whom are members, not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights.
Church officials clarified this year that they do not oppose the legislation.