Updated: Will a fourth time be the charm for hate-crimes legislation in Utah?

This article has been updated with an official response from the LDS Church

When the Utah Legislature passed the state’s first hate-crimes legislation in 1992, sexual orientation was excised from the language, despite protests from several lobbyist organizations and individuals. In fact, in a so-called compromise, the law passed did not include a specified group listing, nor did it mention bias or prejudice in the selection of a victim.

Despite a strong drive in 1999 by Sen. Pete Suazo and community pressure after Matthew Shepard was brutally killed in Wyoming for being gay, Utah lawmakers ignored the call for increased protections for gays and lesbians. Opponents of the effort, including Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, urged lawmakers not to protect “immoral and illegal behavior.”

Then in 2006, The Criminal Penalty Amendments bill was enacted which provided a section in Utah Law titled, “Hate crimes — Aggravating factors” that requires the sentencing judge to consider whether the offense “is likely to incite community unrest,” or likely “to cause members of the community to reasonably fear for their physical safety or to freely exercise or enjoy any right.”

However, the Utah Court of Appeals deemed the law incomplete and essentially useless, calling it an “exercise of rights” law, not a hate-crimes protection law.

In 2009, U.S. Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the federal definition of hate crimes, enhancing the legal toolkit available to prosecutors, and increasing the ability of federal law enforcement to support state and local partners. 

This law removed then-existing jurisdictional obstacles to prosecutions of certain race- and religion-motivated violence and added new federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. 

But before the Civil Rights Division prosecutes a hate crime, the Attorney General or someone the Attorney General designates must certify, in writing, that (1) the state does not have jurisdiction; (2) the state has requested that the federal government assume jurisdiction; (3) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to state charges did not demonstratively vindicate the federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or (4) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

Those four stipulations have made it difficult to get a handle on LGBT hate crimes in Utah, hence the unsuccessful attempts in recent years to pass a hate crimes law which includes sexual orientation.

In October of 2012, QSaltLake Magazine presented a list of known LGBT hate crimes in Utah as far back as 1864. Of the 26 reported crimes, 10 were brutal assaults and 16 resulted in death. Of the 16 murder cases, 7 have gone unsolved, 2 acquittals, 2 life in prison sentences, 3 manslaughter convictions (sentences of 5, 10 and 15 years), 1 suicide, and 1 solved past the statute of limitation. Five of the reported assaults have gone unsolved, 4 assaults sentenced from 15 months to 5 years, and 1 sentenced to community service.

Accordingly the fact is those numbers have risen since 2012, without a state law put in place protecting LGBT Utahns from violence.

And yet since 2016, consecutive hate-crimes legislation in Utah has either failed or died without a hearing. Now, as a fourth proposal will be presented before the Legislature, legislators and advocates believe the same objections that hampered the original law a quarter century ago will likely remain cemented.

When the Legislature passed a similar measure in 2015 to enact Utah’s first statewide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community, it also contained safeguards for religious liberty (within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and many on both sides feel the Legislature will consider that sufficient for at least the time being.

Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said that the church’s position of LGBT-protections provision has been holding up passage of the bill.

“This is kind of the unspoken thing that’s up there on Capitol Hill,” Williams said to The Salt Lake Tribune. “It doesn’t make sense to me. This valley was founded in its current form by a church that was fleeing hate-crimes persecution. So if there’s any group of people that ought to be promoting sensible and inclusive hate-crime laws, it’s the Latter-day Saints.”

On Jan. 23, the LDS church spoke out about the proposed legislation, saying it will not stand in the way of legislation to toughen the punishment for crimes targeting LGBT people.

“We want to make it clear that we do not oppose the hate crimes legislation,” Marty Stephens, the church’s director of government and community relations, told the Deseret News Wednesday.

“We think this is an issue that the Legislature should rightfully wrestle with and come up with good public policy so that people are protected, whatever the Legislature feels is the best way to do that,” Stephens added.

In surprised response to the church’s vocalized stance, Senator Daniel Thatcher, R-WVC, three-time author of the hate-crimes bill, said that he hopes this will end “the blockade on this bill getting a hearing.”

Additionally, Williams said the church’s response could be a “game changer” for the passage of the bill and commenting on the similarity of hate crimes faced by both LGBT people and Latter-day Saints.

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