Recent events show the need for a Utah hate crimes law

This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune.

This isn’t another op-ed about gun violence. This is an op-ed about hate crimes. Hate crimes that could come right to your front door. Hate crimes that could attack your places of worship, as mine was attacked on Saturday.

I was in a great mood last Saturday. Better than in a long time. I work for my family, and it’s been rough going lately. But on Saturday, things were good. For a moment, I wasn’t worried about how to raise my teenage boys in the age of Trump, or #MeToo, or the bitterness of politics in general, and in Utah in particular. It was a beautiful Utah fall day and I ran eight miles for the first time in months – and it felt great. I texted my sister to thank her for a call we’d had earlier in the morning that helped lift those clouds. I had breakfast with my boys and my wife. I threw tennis balls to my dogs.

And then a man walked into a Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the world came crashing back. By days end, 11 people were dead and the Federal investigation had characterized the massacre as a hate crime. And while this could easily be another OpEd about gun violence, this tragedy just as easily gives rise to an equally important conversation about hate crimes.

This event is, of course, no more tragic than Haun’s Mill, or arson at a Texas mosque, or the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. It is no more tragic, but it is more personal to me. It’s more personal because I am a Jew. While I live in the Salt Lake valley, I am a member of Temple Har Shalom in Park City. And though my fellow congregants can attest that I am unlikely to be in the building on most Saturdays, the 11 dead could easily be any 11 of us, on any given Saturday morning of worship.

While this event is certainly more personal to me than the other referenced events, they all share a tragic commonality – they are all hate crimes. The FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” The FBI, in fact, says that hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s Civil Rights program, not only because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities, but also because groups that preach hatred and intolerance can plant the seed of terrorism here in our country. Hate crimes are particularly heinous because they strike fear into entire communities – they send the message “you don’t belong here – leave, or you may be next.”

I commend the FBI and our other Federal law enforcement agencies for their recognition and focus on hate crimes. But here at home, at the state level, we are lagging far behind. In fact, we have no effective hate crime legislation to speak of. And that is, unfortunately, intentional. There has not been a single crime successfully prosecuted under Utah’s hate crimes statute. Year after year, a new version of hate crimes legislation is unsuccessfully proposed in the Utah legislature – often not even receiving a hearing in committee, let alone receiving a floor vote. Most recently, Senator Dan Thatcher (R-SD12) has led this legislative effort, to no avail.

This effort has the support of legislators, law enforcement, the general public, and faith leaders from various denominations around the state. But our legislature has been openly hostile to passing hate crimes legislation, despite the shared history of violent religious persecution shared by so many legislators who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After all, it was to escape hate crimes in Illinois and Missouri that Brigham Young led the pioneers to the valley that I now call home.

I have great respect for our legislature and the leaders of the LDS Church, though I do not confuse respect for agreement, and there are plenty of issues on which we disagree. But it is past time for effective hate crimes legislation to come to Utah, and with this latest in a string of horrific hate crimes throughout the country, I challenge our legislature to see that it does. And we, as Utahns, should demand no less. Call your legislators today and urge them to pass effective hate crimes legislation in the 2019 legislative session.

This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune.

 

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