Hate Crimes Bill Advances

Hate Crimes Bill Advances

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- After several twists and turns and more than two hours of debate, the Utah House of Representatives approved a bill to increase penalties for hate-motivated crimes.

After six years of attempts, the 38-35 vote Thursday night was the first time a hate-crimes bill has been approved in the Utah House. During the vote, there was complete silence in the House chamber and immediately following the decision, those in the public gallery burst into applause.

"I always believed we could get it done. But am I surprised after all that debate? Absolutely," said bill sponsor, Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City.

"I'm dumbfounded and I'm speechless," said Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, who spoke passionately in favor of the bill. "I didn't believe it would pass.

"I don't think any of us have seen drama like that in here for years," he said.

The bill would levy harsher penalties for people who threaten or commit acts of violence or vandalism against someone because of their bias against the victim's race, color, gender, disability, nationality, ancestry, religion or sexual orientation.

The bill was altered on the House floor to add businesses to that list, which would include fur farms and ranches.

The legislation would increase the penalties for a crime by one degree, so a Class B misdemeanor would be bumped up to a Class A, and so on. For first-degree felonies, the hate crime would be considered before the convict is paroled.

It will now go to the Senate for consideration.

The bill's approval followed what appeared to be an attempt to gut the bill.

Earlier in the debate, the representatives decided 38-32 to significantly alter the bill to instead say a judge could consider a crimes effect of "actually causing" a person to reasonably fear to exercise their constitutional rights.

That vote apparently caused a change of heart among the lawmakers. "I don't understand why we all felt so threatened by this legislation," said Rep. Susan Lawrence, R-Salt Lake City. "We have put it in a form we can all feel good about it ... but I personally think it was a cop-out and a sham."

Rep. Morgan Philpot, R-Sandy, called on the lawmakers to reconsider the vote, saying the bill's authors deserved to have their issue voted on.

"I think it is probably the least we can do for them," Philpot said. "Let's make the decision on the issue they worked so hard on."

The House eventually voted to restore the original language.

In the last five year conservative lawmakers have voted it down, arguing it gave specials rights minorities, especially to gays and lesbians. Opponents of the bill Thursday argued that all crimes are hate crimes and that all people are hurt by these crimes.

"A crime is a crime, there's no two ways about it," Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, said.

Proponents of hate crimes sentencing enhancements were optimistic that a statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would help pass the bill. The statement said the faith's leaders did not oppose the bill.

"The church abhors all hate crimes. The church's well-known opposition to attempts to legalize same-gender marriage should never be interpreted as justification for hatred, intolerance or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies, either individually or as a group," the statement said.

This is the first time the Mormon church has commented on hate crimes legislation in Utah.

"We did not comment previously because we had not been asked by sponsoring legislators to review earlier versions of their bill," said church spokesman Dale Bills.

As the lawmakers quickly left the House floor Thursday night, Ferrin tried to explain the final vote.

"Many Republicans had to look deep into their hearts and distinguish between truth and maybe mistaken preconceived notions," Ferrin said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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