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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite languishing for years, a bill that would add teeth to Utah's hate crime laws for the first time cleared a legislative hurdle that will allow it to be heard by the full state Senate.
In an overflowing room of onlookers, the bill sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, got a unanimous vote of approval Thursday from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
"I have never prepared more, nor been more nervous for a presentation than I am for this one," Thatcher said when explaining his bill to the committee. "That's because of the tremendous weight of so many groups and so many people across the state of Utah waiting for this action from the Legislature."
Thatcher's bill, SB103, would bolster Utah's hate crime statutes, which currently only allow penalty enhancements for misdemeanor counts and not felony counts. It also adds a list of specific protected classes, including age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, homelessness, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.
The bill comes after Thatcher attempted for several years to gain support from lawmakers for such legislation, but found it difficult to gain traction.
After Thursday's vote, Thatcher hugged supporters as he walked out of the committee room, but told reporters he expected a close vote on the Senate floor.
"This is not a done deal. This is not over yet," he said. "Victory laps would be very premature. But it does feel damn good to be on the field."
The bill's committee support comes after federal prosecutors earlier this week filed hate crime charges against a man who allegedly was racially motivated when he assaulted a man in a Salt Lake City tire shop. Local prosecutors previously declined to file hate crimes charges, saying Utah's current law wouldn't allow them to do so.
Groups including Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, have called for changes to Utah's hate crimes laws to help better protect Utahns who they say suffer from increased suicide risks.