Hate-Crimes Bill May Go to Ballot

Hate-Crimes Bill May Go to Ballot

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Supporters of hate-crime legislation, defeated in the Legislature for nine years now, may try to put it before voters.

The legislation would enhance penalties for crimes based on bias or prejudice appears to be hardening the resolve of supporters to keep the debate going.

Edward Lewis Jr., president of the NAACP Utah-Nevada-Idaho Tri-State Conference, said efforts to take the issue to voters will likely be headed up by the NAACP Salt Lake Branch.

"The voters, the police departments, the law and justice systems have all been in favor of passing this bill," Lewis said. "You've got the attorney general in support of it, police officers in support of it. What part of this message do legislators not understand?"

Lewis said the NAACP would likely discuss the topic at a March meeting.

The earliest a statewide initiative could be put on the general election ballot would be next year.

Recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV public opinion polls by Dan Jones & Associates have shown public support for the legislation. In the most recent poll, 63 percent of the 406 people polled said they favored the bill. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percent.

However, the newspaper said those legislators against the bill that it contacted believe most of their constituents are opposed to it.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said his Davis County constituents are "overwhelmingly against hate-crimes legislation."

"I hope those polls aren't being used as gospel," Oda said.

Sandy resident Sonia James, who lobbied legislators to pass a hate-crimes law, said she wakes up in the middle of the night to voices screaming from her answering machine. The anonymous callers curse James for being black, telling her they will burn her house down if she continues to push for enhanced hate-crime penalties, she said.

"Every time we vote that bill down, the message we're sending out to these fanatics is that there's no consequence for these actions," James said. "It's scary when the people who are representing us are not protecting us."

Sandy city leaders on Tuesday night passed a "Resolution Calling for Respect & Tolerance" that mentions racist fliers placed on James' door and calls for the city to reaffirm its commitment to "be a place of tranquillity, peace and respect."

"Sandy has taken a better stance than some of the people in our Capitol," James said. "At least they're making an effort. It's not going to make a change, but it's a positive step."

Sandy city spokesman Ryan Mecham said police have kept a close watch on James' house and will install equipment to trace harassing calls.

The failed legislation would have enhanced by one step the penalty for crimes based on bias or prejudice due to perceived or actual attributes, including race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age or gender. For example, a class A misdemeanor would be prosecuted as a third-degree felony.

Some opponents object specifically to include sexual orientation in the bill. They contend it implies that homosexuality is acceptable.

Others are opposed to the concept. They said the crimes should be treated the same regardless of whether they are based on hatred of a group, hatred of an individual or for some other motive.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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