A coalition of religious and civic organizations has already started pushing the Indiana General Assembly to pass hate crime legislation that includes language covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
Leaders of the effort acknowledge the inclusive language could stir opposition especially since the bruising battle brought on by last session’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is expected to continue this session with the fight over expanding the state’s civil rights statute.
However, they maintain their hate crime proposal is separate matter from that debate.
“The Legislature can debate whether a florist should be required to provide services to a gay wedding,” said Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry. “…But beyond all that, is a fundamentally different issue as to whether someone committed a crime because an individual is a homosexual or is an African-American or is Jewish. I’m sure I’m naïve but it should be an easy thing for the Legislature to say this is unacceptable behavior and we are going to address it accordingly.”
The Office of the Marion County Prosecutor is part of the coalition along with several other groups including the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and the Indianapolis Urban League.
Indiana is one of only five states that do not have a hate crime statute.
“I think it’s important that as a city and a region we really start to rally around some of these issues if we want to continue to grow and prosper not just economically but even socially,” said Tony Mason, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Urban League. “The reality of it is Indianapolis and this region (are) becoming increasingly more diverse so we need this.”
Coalition members are proposing language be amended into the Indiana Code that would add a hate crime as a sentencing aggravator. If a defendant is found to have intentionally selected an individual or group because of such characteristics as their religion, race, ethnicity, national origin or disability, then the judge could order a longer sentence.
Also, the provision adopts language from The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 by defining hate crimes to include acts against individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity or expression.
David Sklar, JCRC director of government affairs, conceded the inclusive language may spark opposition in the Statehouse. He supports having a debate about discrimination and religious freedom but, he said, those conversations are about public accommodation and hate crime legislation is about protecting people from becoming victims.
“At the end of the day, I think we should all be able to basically agree that somebody should not be targeted for criminal action,” Sklar said.
The coalition’s proposed bill also mandates Indiana law enforcement agencies collect and report hate crime statistics to the FBI and requires officers to receive training on recognizing and responding to hate crimes.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, is expected to introduce hate crime legislation and coalition members are anticipating the language in his bill will mirror their language.
The coalition has already started talking to legislators and plans to be active during the session, trying to get a committee hearing so it can make its case publicly.