On July 24, 1847, our pioneer ancestors arrived in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Valley. They were fleeing persecution and sought a safe refuge to practice their religion without fear for their lives. Our state was formed by those seeking refuge from religious-motivated hate crimes.
Over 150 years later, in 1992, Utah adopted its first hate-crime laws, which increased penalties for bias-motivated offenses. The law was an important step forward. But the fight is not over, and it’s time to take another step.
Since its ratification, our hate-crimes law has rarely, if ever, convicted a single offender. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there haven’t been bias-motivated crimes. Between 1996 and 2014, Utah law enforcement agencies reported a total of 1,243 hate crimes against Utahns. Forty-three percent of hate-crime victims were targeted because of race; 23 percent because of religion; 18 percent because of ethnicity; 15 percent because of sexual orientation, and 1 percent because of disabilities.
In December 2014, Rusty Andrade and Maxwell Christen were attacked because of their sexual orientation. They were approached by two men who made gay slurs and sexual references and then physically attacked them. Andrade and Christen were left bruised, bloodied and emotionally broken. Yet a year later, the case remains under investigation and the offenders are still walking free.
One of the challenges for prosecutors is that our current law never defines what hate crimes are: crimes of hatred or prejudice because of what a person represents or is perceived to represent, whether that’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation or how he or she worships God. The words “hate,” “bias” and “prejudice” are nowhere to be found in our current law, making it difficult for prosecutors to prove a hate crime took place.
Another obstacle is our hate-crime law makes no mention of specific characteristics — race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation — tying prosecutors’ hands. Without denoting who is protected in this law, it’s nearly impossible to prosecute an alleged culprit.
Further complicating matters, prosecutors must prove hate crimes were committed with the intent to deprive the victims of their constitutional rights. In other words, unless an assailant set out to impede the victim’s right to vote, bear arms or assemble peacefully, for example, a crime could not be considered a hate crime.
Without protected categories and explicit language, victims don’t stand a fighting chance of winning a hate-crime conviction. It’s time to create a law for our state that functionally protects all of us.
To that end, Sen. Steve Urquhart has introduced a revised hate-crimes bill this legislative session. Equality Utah will work with a diverse coalition of faith groups and ethnic communities to make this law a reality. Last year, we enjoyed an unprecedented success working alongside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to advance a nondiscrimination law that protects employees and tenants from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or religious beliefs.
In Utah, we demonstrate to a divided nation that people from diverse social and political views can stand together to advance the common good. Building a strong hate-crimes law is an important way to say to each of our citizens, “We’ve got your back.” Passing such a law will protect Mormons, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, people with disabilities, LGBT individuals and everyone in between.
The Utah Legislature has already acknowledged that hate crimes should be documented and prosecuted. Now is the time to give prosecutors the tools they need to actually do the job.
This is an effort that would make our pioneer ancestors proud.
Troy Williams is the executive director of Equality Utah.
See the OpEd in the Deseret News here.