SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Daniel Thatcher pumped his fist into the air Tuesday after a majority of his fellow Senate Republicans agreed his hate crimes bill should get a committee hearing.
"It was very difficult. It was a long road and we still have a long way to go. But we have overcome the largest hurdle," Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told reporters after the closed-door caucus meeting.
He said SB103 will be heard Thursday morning by the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Last week, Thatcher said he was struggling to win over a majority of the 23-member caucus.
Now that the Senate Republicans agreed the bill should be heard, Thatcher said he is "very confident it will pass with strong support" to the Senate floor. There, however, he said the vote will be close.
"This is a tough issue," Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said. "We wanted a certain threshold of caucus support to have the bill be heard. Some of these controversial bills are hard to hear knowing they will fail."
The bill enhances the punishment for a crime when victims are targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristics. It is being substituted to include a number of new categories of affected groups.
Hemmert credited Thatcher's passion for the issue for helping to change minds in the caucus, including his own.
"I've been more in the camp of a crime is a crime is a crime and we don’t need accelerators, if you will," Hemmert said, something seen as picking "winners and losers" by giving one group protections another group doesn't have.
Adding more types of targets helped, the Senate majority whip said. The new categories include where someone attended college, as well as age, homelessness, marital or family status, and military service.
"I'm optimistic it will pass on the floor," Hemmert said. He said the "events of the moment" didn't drive the caucus decision.
There have been several recent incidents described as hate crimes, including one captured on social media Sunday of a man being attacked after he was asked if he was gay.
Last week, a pride flag hanging outside the Salt Lake City restaurant owned by Senate Minority Caucus Manager Derek Kitchen and his husband, Moudi Sbeity, was vandalized.
Various lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to advance a hate crimes bill. Just before the session started in January, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indicated it would not stand in the way of such legislation.
Marty Stephens, the church's director of government and community relations, told the Deseret News then that, "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."
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is expected to be the House sponsor of SB103, said he expects the bill will be well-received there.
"Our theme is, voice of the people," Perry said. "This is what the people of Utah are telling us what they want."