Senate Republicans strip hate crimes bill of victim categories

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The Republican-majority Senate stripped a hate crimes bill Tuesday of language that specified the types of crimes it would apply to—those motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and other categories—despite emotional pleas by Democrats to leave the bill as written.

Senate Bill 12 will now be eligible for a vote by the full Senate on Thursday—but in a form that Gov. Eric Holcomb and business leaders have said repeatedly they don't like. The bill now makes crimes motivated by bias eligible for stronger penalties, but it doesn’t define bias.

Holcomb released a statement after the vote on the amendment saying that new version of the bill "does not get Indiana off the list of states without a bias crime law." Indiana is currently one of five states without such legislation. 

"We have a long way to go, a lot of work to do, and fortunately the time yet still to do it," he said of the legislative session, which is scheduled through the end of April. "I will continue to fight for the right ultimate outcome for our state and citizens this year so we’re not right back here in the same place next year.”

Getting off the “list” of states without a hate crimes bill has been a primary goal of the legislation because business and community leaders say it hurts state and local economic development efforts. But Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said he’s not clear on what language is or isn’t necessary to make that happen.

He said legislative leaders have asked the organizations that publicize rankings on issues such as hate crimes what version of the bill would achieve the larger goal. But, Bray said, “the answer has generally been: You need to pass something, and we’ll let you know.”

Business groups have been pushing lawmakers to pass a hate crimes bill that is specific in detailing the types of victims against whom crimes would qualify for enhanced penalties. And they have said that list should include gender identity and sexual orientation.

Indy Chamber CEO Michael Huber issued a statement late Tuesday that called the Senate's action "a disappointing setback for Indiana, for our business climate and our collective conscience as Hoosiers."

He said the bill—as it's now written—would provide no clarity and "do little to protect our fellow citizens in any effective way from violence and vandalism motivated by hate."

“And instead of signaling that Indiana is open for business, it shuts out opportunity by discouraging a diverse workforce and the employers who follow," Huber said. "It would put us on the defensive and playing catch-up – again."

Salesforce Marketing Cloud CEO Bob Stutz, who oversees the company's significant operations in Indianapolis, tweeted Tuesday that he was "extremely disappointed that the Senate weakened" SB 12. He said Salesforce "stands for #EquityForAll and urges the House to amend the list of all the protected classes back into the bill."

But Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, who introduced the amendment approved Tuesday, argued the resulting legislation would treat Hoosiers equally.

“I’m adding the word bias. I think it covers everyone,” Freeman said. “I don’t think it leaves anyone out … and I think it makes a lot of sense.”

The version of the bill the Senate Public Policy Committee approved by a 9-1 vote on Monday included a list that specified it would cover crimes motivated by race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation and age.

Critics say the move by Senate Republicans to remove the list guts the bill.

Several Democrats—including the Legislature’s only openly gay member and several black lawmakers—spoke passionately against the change. Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-Terre Haute, accused Republicans of failing to “recognize me as a human being.”

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, was visibly upset while he spoke on the Senate floor about how he has fought for hate crimes legislation for years and repeatedly run into opposition from Republicans.

“Don’t do this,” Taylor said. “You guys all know what you’re doing. I’m begging you.”

Democrats also argued that the amended version of the bill will be unclear to judges because it does not define bias, but Republicans disagreed.

“I think it’s fairly clear what bias is,” Bray said. “When you keep it open, it allows the judge to make some distinction there.”

The amendment passed 33-16. Democrats plus seven Republicans—including Indianapolis mayoral candidate Jim Merritt—voted against the amendment.

“I voted against it because it wasn’t what it was in committee,” Merritt said. “It’s important to me that we follow what we do in committee.”

Merritt said he was convinced by the testimony he heard at Monday’s meeting that the list should be included in the legislation. But he said he will still support the bill in its amended form.

Bray said Republicans have the 26 votes necessary to pass the bill—which was authored by Republican Sens. Ron Alting of Lafayette and Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores—even without any support from Democrats.

He said it was less clear that the original version of the bill—with the list—would have passed. It would have been close, he said.

The vote on the amendment came after the Senate took a 30-minute break, which Bray said was meant to let lawmakers cool off. But after the vote, Senate Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest of what they said was a watered-down bill.

Republicans, who have a super majority and do not need Democrats present to conduct business, continued voting on legislation without them.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane accused Republicans of throwing what he described as a clear, specific and inclusive bill in the trash.

“What we’re left with today, I gotta tell you, I’m just shocked by it,” Lanane said.

Lanane and Taylor both said they’re worried the state could face similar backlash of the kind it experienced after the Legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and then-Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law in 2015.

“This is a disaster for the state of Indiana,” Taylor said. “It might be worse than RFRA.”

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