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With GOP divided, future of Utah hate-crime law in doubt

FILE - In this March 9, 2017, file photo, Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher speaks on the phone on the Senate floor at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City. Support for a proposal to strengthen hate-crimes legislation in Utah could be faltering, lawmakers said Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. The idea is still lacking broad support in the GOP caucus, said Republican Senate President Stuart Adams. (Credit: Rick Bowmer, AP)

By Lindsay Whitehurst, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican lawmakers remained divided Friday on a proposal to strengthen hate-crimes legislation in Utah, leaving its future in doubt.

Senate President Stuart Adams said the legislation lacks majority support in the GOP caucus. Though he supports it, concerns remain among members about what groups would have protections and whether it’s broad enough.

Utah has a hate-crime law, but it doesn’t protect specific groups and prosecutors have said it’s essentially unusable.

The proposal to strengthen it has been stuck in a legislative logjam for years after the influential Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised questions about whether its protections for LGBT people struck the right balance with religious rights.

The bill has been gathering momentum, though, since the church said last month it doesn’t oppose the idea.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher, would mandate heavier punishments for people found guilty of committing a crime to terrorize groups of people based on factors such as race, religion and sexual orientation. Thatcher is revising the bill to add factors such as age and disabilities.

He said GOP senators are evenly split on the proposal, but he believes he can sway enough support to get a majority in favor and bring it to a vote.

“This bill is so important,” he said. “I’m really hoping we’re going to have a hearing.”

All but five states have hate crime laws. Utah is one of 15 with a law that doesn’t cover anti-LGBT crimes, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Thatcher’s proposal got renewed attention this year after the December beating of a Latino man by an attacker who told police he was targeting Mexicans.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has expressed support for the idea. Utah Democrats are also behind it.

“This is an important bill to our constituents, and to myself personally and a number of people in my community,” said Democratic Sen. Derek Kitchen, the Legislature’s only openly gay lawmaker.

Kitchen, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that legalized gay marriage in Utah, said he had a personal experience where someone ripped an LGBT pride flag at a restaurant he owns with his husband.

“These things happen every day in our community,” he said.