Indiana Senate votes to send controversial hate crimes bill to governor

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The Indiana Senate adopted the House’s version of a bias crimes bill Tuesday afternoon, sending the legislation to Gov. Eric Holcomb despite complaints from opponents who say the bill isn’t specific enough.

The Senate’s 34-14 vote in favor of the bill sends the legislation to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who said he would sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk.

Five Republicans joined nine Democrats in voting against the bill.

Senate Bill 198, which initially only dealt with prison drug offenses, would make defendants eligible for stronger penalties if their crimes were motivated by a victim’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute, including but not limited to color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.

Proponents of the language have argued that it’s the most inclusive bill possible.

But the bill doesn’t actually include that list of characteristics; it simply references a list in existing state law, and some of the initial supporters of a hate crimes bill have argued that the list needs to include gender identity, sex, age and ancestry.

The move by the Senate means the public never had a chance to weigh in on the specific bill approved by both chambers.

For months, Holcomb pushed lawmakers to pass a bill that specifically mentioned gender identity, but he told reporters on Monday that he believed the bill would meet his goal of protecting all Hoosiers.

“Months ago, I decided to make protecting Hoosiers against bias crimes a key part of my 2019 legislative agenda,” Holcomb said in written comments after the vote. “Today, finally, Senate Bill 198, accomplished that goal and I will sign it into law as soon as it gets to my desk. Those targeted for crimes because of color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation are protected. But this new law goes further. It also will cover bias crimes committed because of other traits and characteristics, such as gender, or gender identity, or sex, or age, and other commonly targeted groups."

Indiana Forward, one of the business advocacy groups that had been lobbying for bias crimes legislation this session, said Friday that its leaders spoke to the Anti-Defamation League about the language and were told the legislation would not get Indiana off its list of five states without such a law.

“That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me to hear that,” Holcomb said on Monday.

Holcomb said he believes the language meets the ADL’s requirements, because it has an enumerated list of characteristics and it covers everyone.

“The Indiana Forward campaign remains disappointed by the lack of a comprehensive list of characteristics we know are the targets of bias motivated crimes in our state and concerned by language that is overly broad and vague to the point of raising potential constitutional questions,” the group said in a joint statement with United Way of Central Indiana and the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council after the vote. “Although age, sex, gender and gender identity are missing from SB198, the millions of Hoosiers who identify with these characteristics are not missing from our coalition’s unwavering support, and we will continue to work to ensure that they are added, and specifically identified, in the statute.”

The language, which House Republicans slipped into SB 198 on the chamber floor instead of in a committee hearing last week, has split groups that once agreed on the issue.

For example, the Indy Chamber is opposed to it, but the Indiana Chamber of Commerce supports it. The Indiana Family Institute is opposed to it, while the American Family Association of Indiana supports it.

“The bias crimes legislation heading to the governor is a big step in the right direction,” Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said Tuesday afternoon in a written statement. “Though the list is not as comprehensive as we had advocated for, what the Legislature has passed is still a meaningful hate crimes bill. It is more inclusive than some states’ laws and on par with others. Not to mention, it’s far better than having no law at all.”

Earlier this year, the Senate approved Senate Bill 12, which would have made crimes motivated by bias eligible for stronger penalties. But that legislation didn’t define bias or include a specific list of victim categories — a sticking point for Democrats and Holcomb. The bill initially included a list, but Senate Republicans stripped it from the language before final passage.

SB 12 was assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee, but it did not receive a hearing. House Speaker Brian Bosma said last week that he didn’t believe SB 12 would have passed out of committee.

Lafayette Republican Sen. Ron Alting, who co-authored SB 12, said during an event hosted by Women4Change Indiana on Monday at the Statehouse that his goal was to protect all individuals who may be targeted for a crime.

“It’s interesting how many members in the General Assembly say this is the most well-written bias crimes bill in the country, that it’s absolutely inclusive,” Alting said. “Well, if that's the case, then what’s the problem adding gender identity, sex and age and maybe a few others? If your bill is so great, what’s wrong with adding a couple of words?”

Republican Sen. Mike Bohacek, who co-authored the original bias crimes bill with Alting and is the author of SB 198, said the list of characteristics included before — and included now — is just a set of examples for judges.

“The list has changed, but the intent of the bill is still the same,” Bohacek said.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he’s worried about the perception people will have of the state.

“Just OK isn’t OK,” Lanane said. “I sort of feel that’s where we’re at right now.”

Lanane had urged Bohacek to dissent on the changes made in the House, which would have sent it to a conference committee, where the public could have weighed in and additional changes could have been made.

“We don’t need to have important historical bills like this being legislated behind closed doors,” Lanane said.

Democrats also criticized Holcomb for what they believe is a lack of leadership on the issue.

“The governor abandoned his commitment and instead supported this empty, hollow bill,” Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said.

Republican Sen. Jim Merritt, who is running for mayor of Indianapolis, voted in favor of the bill. In a statement, Merritt called the bill “a substantial first step forward for Indiana to demonstrate our commitment to protecting all citizens from hate and bigotry.”

He said, if elected mayor, he would work with the governor to reinstate the listing of protected categories that was removed, a listing that Merritt supported as the bill moved through the General Assembly.

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