Utah lawmakers look to expand hate crime rules to cover LGBTs

By : Wire Report
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GayUtahAbstrSalt Lake City (AP) – Utah state senators back a proposal that would beef up the state’s hate crime law and add protections for gay and transgender people.

Lawmakers voted 17-12 Feb. 26 to give preliminary approval of the plan after debating it. They must still cast a final vote on the measure sometime in the next two weeks.

The proposal would increase the penalties for crimes against a person or their property if the action was motivated by factors such as the victim’s sexual orientation, race, or religion.

Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said he feels fantastic that the plan advanced.

He said he is wary about its chances advancing further given that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement last week urging legislators not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights. Most lawmakers are members of the faith.

“I would need to perform some serious magic to get it through the process now that the church has spoken against it,” said Urquhart.

Mormon church spokesman Dale Jones said in the statement that lawmakers struck a balance last year with an anti-discrimination law that protected religious rights and LGBT rights. Jones said that balance should be maintained despite efforts on both ends of the political spectrum to upset it. Jones declined to elaborate.

Urquhart, a Mormon, said his proposal is balanced and would protect religious groups, including members of the LDS Church.

Some lawmakers spoke in support of the proposal during the debate, saying it protects many groups of people that are not currently protected in the state.

“Painting a smiley face on a synagogue is a very, very different action than painting a swastika,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

A number of community and religious groups have also endorsed the plan.

Utah is one of over a dozen states with hate crime laws that lack protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The current law doesn’t include specific protected groups but instead speaks generally about crimes that cause a person to fear they cannot freely exercise their constitutional rights.

Some lawmakers criticized the proposal, saying it gives special protection for certain groups of people over others.

“How is this equal?” said Republican Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross. “If someone attacks me if I’m obese, there’s no protection for me.”

“We don’t have a big history of people saying, `let’s roll up on a fatty,” Urquhart later said. “The reality is certain groups are attacked because they belong to that group.”

Lawmakers also voted in support of Urquhart’s accompanying proposal on Friday, which would clarify that a person’s membership in a specific group or hate speech alone cannot serve as evidence that something was a hate crime. The person’s comments or actions must be specifically related to the crime – such as stating an intent to attack a specific person because of their race, not past statements against members of a race.

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