Hate crimes bill clears big hurdle in Utah legislature

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that toughens Utah's hate crimes law has cleared a major hurdle in the Utah State Legislature, passing 5-1 in a Senate committee.

Senate Bill 107, sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, passed after an hour of passionate testimony from people on both sides of the debate.

"This is the great debate of America," Urquhart told the committee on Thursday. "It's over equality."

Supporters of SB107 claim current Utah law actually doesn't spell out any categories for protection. This bill would add race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protections.

Urquhart told FOX 13 he was running the bill to build off last year's historic nondiscrimination legislation that added LGBT protections to housing and employment. Those bills were backed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"That was a tectonic shift for the state and it was a great shift," he said. "It was a great advance for the state. This is the next logical thing."

While the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City gave its blessing to SB107 on Thursday, the LDS Church has so far not weighed in.

"I have not had conversations with them," Urquhart said. "I hope they come on board."

SB107 faced some scrutiny. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, pressed lawmakers about who's protected and when a simple crime like a burglary gets elevated because the homeowner happens to be Jewish. Urquhart said prosecutors must link the intent to the crime that is charged.

Public comment was split on the bill.

"I have been a victim of a hate crime in Utah because I'm black," said Jeanetta Williams, the president of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP. She urged support for the bill.

Laura Bunker of United Families International opposed the bill, suggesting it was "creating categories."

"The list of categories is getting so long it's alphabetized in this bill," she said, explicitly opposing sexual orientation and gender identity.

Tyler Cope testified he believed the bill creates "thought crime." Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said there were more than 1,200 hate crimes investigated by police in the past 20 years -- but only a handful ever really prosecuted.

"We, as public prosecutors, want a tool available to us so we can effectively address a measure of justice to the community," Gill testified.

Urquhart insisted the bill wasn't punishing thoughts -- but protecting people. He noted the founding of the state by Mormons who were driven across the country for their religious beliefs.

"We're here because Mormons were lynched, Mormons were persecuted, Mormons were driven out of states," he said, pointing out the bill protects religions. "That's worthy of protection."