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SALT LAKE CITY — Citing past persecution of early Mormons and recent bomb threats at Jewish community centers, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday to strengthen protections for religious minorities.
The bill would expand criminal law to include threats to intentionally deface, damage or destroy any religious property or to threaten to obstruct — by force or threat of force — a person’s exercise of their religious beliefs. The current federal statute only makes attempts or actual damage to religious property or obstruction of freedom of worship a crime.
Hatch worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to draft the Protecting Religious Affiliated Institutions Act.
The Utah Republican said he is troubled by reports of increasing religious hate crimes, not only in the United States but throughout the world, including more than 100 bomb threats made at Jewish community centers across the country, and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and other cities.
"In recent years, we’ve witnessed an alarming upsurge in threats of violence made against religious institutions,” Hatch said. "I’ve long held that an attack on one religion is an attack on all, which is why I have worked tirelessly to strengthen religious liberty protections for people of all faiths."
Feinstein said the bill makes clear that people will be held responsible for threats against synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions.
"These threats instill fear in entire communities, and they must be treated with the seriousness that’s demanded," she said.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Hatch said that as someone whose pioneer ancestors were driven from their homes and forced to settle in the Mountain West because of their Mormon beliefs, he believes America must not tolerate religiously motivated hate crimes.
FBI statistics showed a 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes from 2014 to 2015, including a 67 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 9 percent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes, Eric Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination in the Department of Justice, told the committee.
Vanita Gupta, incoming president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Muslims, Muslim Americans and people perceived to be Muslim are increasingly targets of threats and violence.
The group Muslim Advocates has tracked more than 80 incidents, including the assault of an airport worker by a traveler in New York and the attempted removal of an Atlanta teen’s hijab, she said.
In addition to a series of threatening letters sent to mosques around the country starting late last year and continuing in 2017, there have also been an alarming number of mosque arsons and incidents of vandalism since the beginning of this year, Gupta told the committee.
A 44-year-old man vandalized a mosque in Columbus, Ohio, writing Islamophobic and politically charged messages, including “Allah is a fraud” and “Oppose Trump You Are Doomed!”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the committee that hate crimes demand priority attention because of their special impact.
"Bias crimes are intended to intimidate the victim and members of the victim's community, leaving them feeling fearful, isolated and vulnerable. Failure to address this unique type of crime often causes an isolated incident to explode into widespread community tension," he said.
Greenblatt said the federal government has an essential leadership role in confronting criminal activity motivated by prejudice and in promoting prejudice reduction initiatives for schools and the community.
"We cannot legislate, tabulate, regulate or arrest our way to a healthier and more accepting society. The fundamental cause of religious and other bias-motivated violence in the United States is the persistence of racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, there are no quick, complete solutions to these problems," he said.