As she stood behind a state-sealed podium in the Capitol rotunda, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, could have mentioned any number of hateful violent acts that have occurred in Utah or the U.S. in recent years. Instead, she focused on an instance that hit particularly close to home: the 2012 shooting of her local synagogue’s windows by a man named Macon Michael Openshaw.
“He just hated Jews, and our sacred building symbolized what he hated,” Arent, the only Jewish member of the Legislature, said. “His actions sent fear throughout our Jewish community, in a different way than a simple property crime. But under Utah law at the time, he could only be charged with a misdemeanor, so the federal prosecutors had to step in.”
That officially changed on Tuesday afternoon, when Herbert signed Senate Bill 103 into law, a piece of legislation intended to hold people like Openshaw accountable for their hateful actions. “With the passing of SB103, Utahns will now be protected by our own state law,” Arent said. “It is the strength of our country and state that expression of belief is protected, no matter how offensive it may be to others.”
As of Tuesday, Herbert had signed 538 bills from the 2019 legislative session. But the governor’s support for the hate crimes bill is significant because similar pieces of legislation have long failed to gain muster in previous sessions. The bill, Herbert said in his address, represents the culmination of years of work of retired and currently serving legislators. “We certainly are paying tribute to those who had something to say, something to do with bringing us to this point today,” the governor said.
The new law gives prosecutors more leeway to seek enhanced punishments for perpetrators who target a victim for personal characteristics like race, gender identity, ethnicity or religion. “Senate Bill 103 is not without controversy, but we’ve come together in what I think is a consensus, to say to our society, ‘We prohibit targeting someone for some kind of personal attribute,’” Herbert said. “I guess if I had my wish of my heart, I wish we didn’t have to talk about hate crimes. I know all of us, I think, wish there were not hate in the world—was not criminal activity—and that we can, in fact, love one another as the Bible teaches us.”
Utah’s previous hate crimes statute was largely symbolic. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill previously told City Weekly the law’s utility “speaks for itself” because prosecutors have not used the standard to net a hate crime enhancement in 20 years. To successfully argue such a case, prosecutors would need to show an assault suspect’s intent was to deny the victim a constitutionally protected right. “That’s a near impossible standard for us to meet,” Gill said, calling the pre-SB103 statute “an empty gesture.”
The potential for increased prison or jail sentences was one of the reasons the ACLU of Utah was not in favor of the bill.
Many politicos were on hand to mark the signing, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; bill sponsors Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry: Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City; and Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.
“The thing with hate crimes is that there are two victims: the person that was harmed, and the community they represent,” Kitchen, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said from the bottom of the steps in the Capitol rotunda. “And it’s the community at large that we’re also trying to protect here.”
Hollins and other speakers praised the bill’s signing, but stressed that more will need to be done to fight future acts of hate. “This law is a tool that we now have to fight against those injustices,” said Hollins, who included in her remarks that she is the first black American woman elected to the state Legislature. “We must continue to stay vigilant and commit to the well-being of all our brothers and sisters.”
As Herbert signed a slew of copies of SB103 and the bill itself, Cox made a few off-the-cuff remarks as he sat beside the governor at a long table, flanked by legions of SB103 supporters. “I’m so grateful that we live in a state where we can have a bill like this,” Cox said, “and I can’t wait to live in a state and a place where we no longer need bills like this.”