A bill aimed at removing Indiana from the list of just five states without a hate crimes law cleared a legislative committee Monday, but not without the continued opposition of conservative groups that have stymied similar proposals for the last several years.
The Senate Public Policy Committee voted 9-1 to advance the bill to the full Senate after hearing nearly three hours of public testimony from opponents and supporters. The bill would specifically allow judges to impose additional penalties against those convicted of committing crimes fueled by biases regarding traits such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and age.
The debate in the Republican-dominated Legislature comes in the wake of a controversy over a 2015 Indiana law that critics said allowed gay people to be discriminated against. The law was later changed, but only after a national backlash and threats of a boycott.
This year’s push for a state hate crimes law has the backing of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said the state is “long overdue” to adopt such a law following the spray-painting of a swastika outside a suburban Indianapolis synagogue last summer
An overwhelming majority of states have hate crime laws, which vary to some degree but generally allow for stiffer sentences to be given to people who are convicted of crimes motivated by hatred or bias. Only Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas do not.
Among the some 40 bill supporters who spoke before the committee were executives of business groups, corporations and universities, along with leaders of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu congregations. Hispanic college students, a transgender woman and the mother of a transgender woman all talked about threatening situations in urging adoption of a state hate crimes law.
Pierre Atlas said he another other members of Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel were victims of last summer’s swastika vandalism that had what he called a “sinister motive” that made it a hate crime.
“It is an attack on that entire group, not just the individual,” Atlas said. “It is intended to terrorize and intimidate that entire group.”
Repeated efforts for an Indiana law have failed amid fierce opposition from conservatives who maintain it would unfairly create specially-protected classes of victims and wrongly restrict free speech. About 10 bill opponents testified Monday, mostly leaders of prominent religious conservative groups in the state.
Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, argued that current state law gives judges the authority to consider bias motives in sentencing criminals.
“Some people are on the favored list this year, maybe next year this committee or other tribunals would take them off,” Smith said. “… When you start creating new rights they inevitably bump up against other things and we have very great concerns about religious liberty should this bill be passed in its current form.”
Hate crimes bill supporters maintain that judges are now reluctant to consider bias factors in sentences since they aren’t specifically identified in state law.
One Fort Wayne local made the trip to the State House to testify against the bill.
“We can live with disagreements that’s what American culture’s always been about, first amendment rights, free speech, freedom of conscions, and also equal protection under the law, the fourteenth amendment.” Dr. Peter Scaer, Associate Professor Concordia Seminary, said.
A bill similar to that endorsed Monday cleared the state Senate in 2016, but the House took no action on it. Senate Republican leaders killed another bill last year before a committee voted on it, saying a consensus couldn’t be reached over its wording.
Holcomb has said the new law should follow the state’s employee anti-harassment policy, which has a list that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray talked with the governor about the issue for about 45 minutes last week and that significant opposition remains among House Republicans on “an expansive list.”
“It is my hope that Senator Bray can thread the needle and get a bill over here that we can work with,” Bosma said.