Advocates of hate crimes law ready to try again

When advocates for a hate-crimes bill took their case to the Legislature last year, their cause was quickly overshadowed by a separate effort to expand the state’s civil rights law to include LGBT protections.

The latter measure, which ultimately failed, became known derisively as the “bathroom bill” with opponents who claimed, falsely, that it would allow predatory men to sneak into women’s restrooms.

The hate crimes bill took a hit, too.

That’s because it included sexual orientation and gender identity in its language — along with race, color, religion, ancestry and disability.

Now, as advocates prepare to make another push for a hate crimes law, they first must unravel the confusion.

Their proposal isn’t, as some opponents claimed, meant to quell free speech or carve out protections for a special few.

Instead, as advocate David Sklar says, it’s designed for any crime victim who is the target of hate because of who they are.

“There is a misconception that it’s only for special classes of people,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

As evidence, he pulls out a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that cleared the way for the hate-crimes legislation that 45 other states have passed.

In a unanimous ruling in 1993, the conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee, wrote it was OK for states to impose harsher sentences on criminals who choose victims because of race, religion or other personal characteristics.

Sklar hopes legislators will note the details of that case, Wisconsin v. Mitchell. It was brought by a black man who was convicted of leading an assault on a white teenager.

“There goes a white boy; go get him,” is what police said he uttered, before the victim was beaten into a coma that lasted four days.

The maximum penalty for aggravated battery was two years. Wisconsin’s hate-crimes law allowed prosecutors to seek a tougher penalty of up to seven years.

As Sklar notes, Supreme Court justices acknowledged the validity of the argument that he’s lately been trying to make to Indiana’s lawmakers. “Crimes motivated by hate are more harmful than other crimes,” he says, “both to victims and to society at large.”

Sklar is head of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. Formed in the heat of World War II, as European Jews were being slaughtered in the Holocaust, the council set out to protect Jews and anyone else singled out because they were different.

It’s now part of a coalition — including the Muslim Alliance of Indiana — that supports the hate-crimes legislation.

“An attack on a mosque is no different than an attack on a synagogue,” Sklar said.

Obstacles to a hate crimes law remain, including what Sklar calls another stubborn misconception. That is that the law attacks free speech.

Last session, conservative pastors opposed the legislation, saying they could be locked up for preaching against homosexuality from the pulpit.

Not true. A crime has to be committed first, triggering the courts to consider motivation — something they already do for a range of crimes.

The same Rehnquist court that upheld the Wisconsin hate crimes law had earlier struck down an ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, that made certain expressions of racial and religious hatred into crimes.

Sklar’s biggest challenge, however, may be convincing lawmakers that hate crimes even exist.

Police in Indiana reported 350 hate crimes to the FBI from 2008 to 2014. But with no state law defining what a hate crime is, Sklar and others suspect that’s a deep undercount.

An Associated Press analysis this summer found more than half of Indiana’s police agencies failed to file hate crime reports with the FBI during that same time period. That rate of non-response was three times the national average of 17 percent.

Sklar says a rash of media-reported hate crimes since Donald Trump’s election as president may prompt organizations like his to band together to create a hate crime hotlines for victims.

But Trump isn’t the reason advocates are bringing the bill back to the Statehouse.

“We would be here if Hillary won,” he said. “We were here last year. We’ll be here next year, if we need to be. We’ll be here until we get it passed.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newsp

apers.