Senate approves hate crimes law without specific categories of victims

The Indiana Senate approved a bias crimes bill on Thursday that had been stripped earlier in the week of specific categories of victims, prompting charges that it would be ineffective.

Senate Bill 12 passed 39-10, with all but one Republican voting yes. Sen. Ron Alting, one of the Republican authors of the bill, joined nine Democrats in voting against the bill.

It now moves to the House, where Gov. Eric Holcomb and business leaders have said they will push to—in their words—strengthen the bill.

“Unfortunately, what passed the Senate today does not meet the all-important criteria of a meaningful bias crimes law," Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar said in a statement immediately after the vote. "The Indiana Chamber and its members will continue to work with all legislators to do just that. We agree with Gov. Holcomb that the current legislation does not even remove Indiana from the list of five states without a bias crimes statute."

Senate President Rodric Bray said he has been talking with business leaders and Holcomb about their concerns and "fully expects the bill to change" in the House.

“It’s our intention obviously with Senate Bill 12 in whatever form it takes to make sure we pass a bill that protects all those that are victimized by bias or prejudice in some way shape or form,” Bray said. “Obviously we have different philosophies in how that gets done.”

As passed by the Senate, the bill makes crimes motivated by bias eligible for stronger penalties, but it doesn’t define bias and it doesn’t include a specific list of victim categories—something Holcomb has repeatedly said he wants included.

Senate Republicans, who hold a super majority in the chamber, stripped the bill of the list on Tuesday, despite emotional pleas from Democrats to keep the language that passed out of the Senate Public Policy Committee.

That version of the bill 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. The bill's authors, Alting and Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores, voted against the amendment on Tuesday.

“I personally believe, and it’s just my belief, that I like the list,” Alting said. “But you know what? Democracy spoke. I lost. I didn’t get the votes.”

Holcomb said after the vote on Tuesday that he did not believe that the new version would "get Indiana off the list," meaning that it essentially would remain one of five states without a hate crimes law.  

The Anti-Defamation League Midwest, one of the groups that analyzes whether states have such protections in place, said in a tweet tht “without its list of protected characteristics, SB 12 is not a real hate crime law.”

Business leaders have also criticized the amended language and argued that it’s “not a hate crimes bill” anymore, and the ACLU issued a statement on Thursday ahead of the vote that said the organization is opposed to the current version.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said he authored the amendment on Tuesday in an effort to keep the bill moving forward rather than watch it die.

“I sat here Tuesday not knowing if we had the votes to pass it,” Freeman said. “I thought the bill was going to fail.”

Republican Sen. Jim Merritt, who is running for mayor of Indianapolis, voted against the amendment on Tuesday with six other Republicans but did not speak on the floor at that time.

On Thursday, even though he voted for the amended bill, he talked about how the legislation should be inclusive otherwise the state could face the same backlash it saw after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 2015.

“We must leave no doubt that Indiana welcomes all,” Merritt said.

Democrats spoke against the bill again on Thursday and suggested that the issue wouldn’t be resolved this year.

“The issue is going to come back,” said Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago. “It’s not going to go away.”

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said his opinion of Alting and Bohacek changed during the debate because they fought to keep the list of victim categories in the bill.

“I can’t imagine being in that room,” Taylor said, referencing the Republican caucus meeting where GOP members decided which amendment would be introduced on Tuesday. “You did a brave thing and you continue to do that.”

Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, was the only Republican who wasn’t an author of the bill or the amendment who spoke in favor it on Thursday.

“I think we should be inclusive of everyone,” Young said. “For me, the list is not inclusive enough.”

Supporters of keeping the list have argued that the law would be too vague and subject to lawsuits, as similar laws in Utah and Georgia have faced, but Young said those laws are completely different because they apply to the crime rather than the sentencing.

“There’s a distinct difference,” Young said. “When you have a crime, it can’t be vague.”

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