Latest hate crimes proposal leaves out specific protected classes

In an effort to remove Indiana from a list of five states without hate crimes legislation, lawmakers have filed three separate bills so far in the Indiana General Assembly, but the latest measure does not specify the classes of individuals and groups who would be protected.

House Bill 1093, introduced Thursday by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, would give judges the ability to consider bias as an aggravating circumstance when sentencing defendants. It defines a bias crime as one committed because of the victim's "real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute the court chooses to consider." It does not list any specific protected classes, such as race or religion.

Steuerwald said he wrote the bill in that way to avoid leaving anyone out. He said he looked at the hate crimes bills in other states and Washington, D.C., and found a total of 35 different protected classes are listed in the laws.

"We did not want to exclude anybody," Steuerwald said. "We wanted every bias to be included that you can think of, and once you start with a list, you exclude people."

Other bills filed by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, and Republican Sens. Ron Alting of Lafayette and Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores, are similar to Steuerwald's legislation and would make a bias crime an aggravating factor at sentencing, but those bills also include lists of specific traits.

Both of those bills would specifically cover race, religion, color, disability, gender/sex, gender identity, national origin, sexual orientation, status as a public safety official/law enforcement officer, service in the military and ancestry.

The Senate bill also would cover political affiliation and “association with any recognition group or affiliation," and the House bill also includes age and ethnicity.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he would like to see a bill that mirrors the language from the state’s personnel handbook, which includes protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

When asked about Steuerwald’s bill on Thursday morning, Holcomb reiterated his position in a statement.

“The goal for us all, before we adjourn, is to pass a bias crime bill that moves our state off the list of five states without one,” Holcomb said. “I’m comfortable with the executive branch employment policy that we’ve had in place since 2005, and I look forward to working with Hoosiers and the legislature as we move to achieve this goal.”

But House Speaker Brian Bosma has suggested it might be easier to pass a bill without specific classes listed. On Thursday, Bosma called it an "interesting development" in the hate crimes bill debate and said Steuerwald's version eliminates the "controversy" of specifying protected classes.

Steuerwald already has the support from the chair of the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee, where the legislation is likely to end up. Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, is a co-author of the bill.

"For anyone who would be looking to make sure we don't leave anybody out, this is that bill," McNamara said.

And Steuerwald has bipartisan support—Rep. Ryan Hatfield, D-Evansville, is another co-author.

"There isn't an identity out there that isn't included in this bill," Hatfield said. "I think it's the most inclusive language possible."

Business and not-for-profit leaders have also called on lawmakers to protect specific classes in the legislation and have argued against compromising for anything less than that.

“If we go to the Statehouse ready to exclude some of our fellow citizens— trading equality for expediency—any victory would be a hollow one that surrenders any claim to real leadership,” United Way of Central Indiana president and CEO Ann Murtlow and Indy Chamber president and CEO Michael Huber wrote in a recent op-ed for IBJ.

Steuerwald said he hasn't talked to anyone in the business community yet, but he thinks this is the strongest language the state could use.

"It's the most comprehensive bias crimes bill I've seen," Steuerwald said.

The legislative session started Thursday afternoon.

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