SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A bid to strengthen the state's hate-crimes law passed its first vote on Monday following an occasionally emotional debate over the long-stalled idea that's been gaining steam since the beating of a Latino man in Salt Lake City.
The state has reached a tipping point on the issue, said Republican sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher.
"I know how many people are counting on us to stand up and make the hard decision and do the right thing," he said.
His measure would allow longer sentences for people convicted of targeting someone because of their sexual orientation, race, religion or other factors. The Senate passed the bill, 19-9.
Supporters argued it would protect civil rights and be an important tool in prosecuting crimes that can strike fear through entire communities.
Opponents, though, worry the measure goes too far in singling out certain groups for protections and stiffer penalties wouldn't solve the problem.
"The reality is, when we're creating protected classes we pick and choose," said Republican Sen. Jake Anderegg. A bid to add protections for people targeted because of their political beliefs was voted down, despite lawmakers' concern about recent pushback against conservatives in the U.S.
If the measure passes a second Senate vote it will go to the House of Representatives.
Utah's current hate-crime law doesn't protect specific groups and prosecutors have said it's essentially unusable.
The bill to strengthen it stalled in 2016, and supporters said its prospects were hurt when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged lawmakers, many of whom are members, not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights.
Church officials clarified this year that they do not oppose the legislation.
A groundswell of support for the idea picked up speed after the November 2018 beating of a Latino man in Salt Lake City who authorities have said was targeted by an attacker who said he wanted to "kill Mexicans."
Alan Dale Covington could not be charged with a hate crime in state court even though he told police he assaulted a father and son with a 3-foot metal pole because they were from Mexico, according to court documents. He was instead charged in federal court in connection with a crime that left one man with serious head wounds. His attorney has not returned messages seeking comment.
Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla said attacks like that rippled through her community.
"I had to explain to my children that they were safe. The irony is I didn't feel safe myself," she said.
In a separate incident two weeks ago, a video showing a man in Salt Lake City punching a stranger allegedly because he was gay gained widespread attention online.