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After years of being shut down, 2017 could finally be the year that Utah gets a workable hate-crimes law.
Prosecutors are backing legislation that would allow enhanced penalties when victims of crimes are selected based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or any other defining characteristic.
It has been a battle at the Capitol for more than a decade, with conservative Republicans beating back every attempt to make the "toothless tiger" of a law that passed the Legislature in 1992 serve the purpose for which it was intended.
In that time, it appears that there has not been a single successful prosecution under the law.
That includes a case in 2015 when two men from Wyoming allegedly staked out and savagely beat two gay men after a holiday party, causing serious injuries to both.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said it was a clear case where the victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation and both assailants reportedly uttered gay slurs during the beating. But there was no way to charge the attackers because the current statute would have required prosecutors to show the attack was intended to deny the victims some constitutional right.
In another recent case, a pair of African-American men beat up a white man because he had a Confederate battle flag sticker on his truck, a case Gill said could have been considered for hate-crime status, but was not because of the weakness of the law on the books.
So why the optimism there could be a change this year?
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, the West Valley City Republican sponsoring the bill, said he spent the last year laying the groundwork for the bill, starting with a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures of the laws on the books in 50 other states.
The bill is a top priority for the state's prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and other law-enforcement groups. The state courts estimate the change could result in three convictions a year.
"I'm not running this because I believe these are rampant. I'm not running this because I believe this happens every day," said Thatcher. "I'm running this because, in those very rare instances when they do, they are absolutely devastating, not just to the individual victim, not just to their community, but to all of us. We all suffer with them."
It has been rebranded now it's about "victim selection," and not "hate crimes," which gave opponents too easy of a target. "Aren't all crimes motivated by hate?" they would argue, and then nod their silent approval at their own cleverness while prosecutors in the room would pull their hair out.
But most importantly is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is silent on the proposal, and could remain on the sidelines.
Last year, the bill was making its way through the Senate with the normal opposition, when the church weighed in. The Legislature and leaders of the faith had cut a deal the previous year to prohibit discrimination against gay and lesbian Utahns in housing and employment.
It was hailed a grand compromise and, the church said, tinkering with the balance that was struck was a bad idea. Wait, the church said. And so the Legislature waited.
That's the kind of clout the church has in a body that is about 90 percent Mormon.
At the time, Sen. Steve Urquhart, the bill's sponsor, said the church's opposition probably cost him between three and five votes in the 29-member Senate.
Asked Tuesday if last year's moratorium had passed its shelf-life or if leaders desired to still see the status quo maintained on all sides, a church spokesman simply said the church wasn't going to comment.
It's possible the church took too much heat last year for opposing hate crimes and medical-marijuana bills, or that it is still early in the session. But to me, that looks like a major shift that now the church might be willing to let the bill run its course.
Gill said he can't speak for the church, but, "I don't expect the church will be coming out and saying anything against it."
And if the church stays on the sidelines, it could set the stage for a major change.
"For the first time," Gill said, "we would actually have a tool we can use."
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