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SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly an hour of sometimes emotional debate, the Senate gave initial approval to a hate crimes bill.
The 19-9 vote for SB103 advances the bill to a final vote in the Senate, as soon as Tuesday. If the bill is approved then it goes to the House, but time is running out with the 45-day session ending March 14.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he had never felt more pressure than as the sponsor of legislation that has repeatedly failed over the years in the Utah Legislature.
"This year, I know how many people are counting on us to stand up and make the hard decision and do the right thing. I feel the tremendous weight of all the communities," Thatcher said.
He said he wished there was a way "to take politics out of the issue," but acknowledged there was not. Thatcher said the real question is whether "we step up as a state" to pass legislation that will protect all Utahns.
The bill enhances the punishment for a crime when victims are targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or a long list of other characteristics, including where they attended college.
An attempt to amend SB103 to add creed and political beliefs was defeated. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, who made the motion, said people have been targeted for being conservatives or for wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, also cited attacks against conservatives on social media in supporting the amendment, even though he said he "has been generally opposed to special protections for some."
Anderegg, who voted against the bill, said "the reality is when we’re creating protected classes, we pick and choose" and that should includes "things you might not agree with. … What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander."
But Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, opposed the amendment because he said he didn't "want to put uncertainty" into the bill. The categories already listed, Hillyard said, already "includes what we're trying to get at."
Cullimore and Hillyard were among 13 Republicans, including Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and other members of Senate leadership, who joined the six Democrats in the Senate in giving initial approval to the bill.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, referred to an incident where a man who allegedly said he was "here to kill a Mexican" before attacking three Hispanic men with a metal pole at a Salt Lake tire store last November.
"I had to explain to my children they were safe. The irony was, I didn’t feel safe myself. So this is something that affects everyone," said Escamilla, who was born in Mexico. "It really hit home. It hit home for my kids."
She said Utah is a state that should not tolerate hate.
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said he's "a member of a community that happens to be targeted more frequently than others. Most of you likely are, as well."
Kitchen said he's had to make peace with being called an anti-gay slur and having his life threatened. Recently, a gay pride flag flying at the restaurant he owns with his husband was vandalized.
He said race or religion is often more targeted than sexual orientation, and thinking about that, "what comes to mind for me is my spouse, who happens to be not only from the Middle East, from the Muslim faith, but also happens to be LGBTQ as well."
At the heart of hate crimes, Kitchen said, is that targeting someone because of who they are creates two victims — the individual as well as the community they represent.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he voted against what he called a "well-intentioned" bill because it could increase incarceration time, something lawmakers have opposed as part of a justice reform initiative.
Thatcher, who left the Senate floor after the vote to tearfully kiss his wife, received a congratulatory hug later from Adams. Earlier in the session, Thatcher struggled to win over a majority of the Senate's GOP caucus to back a hearing for his bill.
There was reluctance among Republicans to deal with the issue despite The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indicating in January that it would not stand in the way of hate crimes legislation.
During the debate, Thatcher pointed out what he called a "clarification" on the issue from the church as well as support from Gov. Gary Herbert and a majority of Utahns.