Arkansas is one of only three states (along with South Carolina and Wyoming) without a hate crimes law and state officials announced this morning a draft of a proposal to change that in the next legislative session.

Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and a bipartisan (but heavily Democratic) group of legislators took part.

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Sen. Jim Hendren and Rep. Nicole Clowney joined forces several months ago to work on the law and it has support from the Black Caucus, among others. It’s been a labor, too, of Sen. Joyce Elliott since she joined the legislature 20 years ago.

The proposal unveiled today DOES include sexual orientation and gender in the protected categories along with race and religion. There is no protection for crimes committed in the name of religion. I note this because In Arkansas, we have a history.

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A 2017 bill that passed the Senate failed in the House because of opposition from so-called Christians to extending added protection to LGBTQ people. Arkansas law of the Hutchinson administrtion era permits religion to be used as a pretext for discrimination in employment, housing and business services on account of sexual orientation. The state also passed a law to prohibit local civil rights protection for LGBTQ people.  Rutledge has participated in lawsuits defending the ability of businesses to discriminate against gay people.

The new legislation would enhance penalties for crimes that included hate as a motive. It’s welcome, but a small step against the broader institutionalized discrimination that has been supported by a few of the people participating in today’s news conference.

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Another sticking point might emerge: Fringe religionist legislators, who don’t like protection for LGBTQ people, have talked about attempting to put police officers in the list of crimes for which enhancements are possible for hate. Crimes against police and first responders already have enhancement provisions under Arkansas law. No police category is included in the legislation unveiled today.

Hendren said he expected there’d be back and forth as the legislation progressed

This was the meat of the original proposal:

It would enhance penalties for existing offenses, by no more than 20 percent, only after law enforcement authorities proved that the perpetrator chose the victim because of the victim’s race, national origin, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

One concern in the final bill is a section that says:

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If multiple motives for selecting a victim are present, the state may only seek a sentence enhancement under this section if a victim attribute listed in subdivision (b)(1) orf this section was a substantial factor in the commission of the offense.

Major businesses have played a role in pushing for such laws around the country. IBM, for example, will take credit for encouraging the law being introduced today. It says the absence of a hate crime law risks setting back the state in education and commerce.

The governor was flanked by posters bearing logos of businesses that support the legislation. And one of his chief allies and beneficiaries of his policies, the state’s major business lobbyist, Randy Zook of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, also spoke for the bill.

Hutchinson said at the news conference he anticipated a “vigorous legislative discussion.” That means the usual suspects will again push their animus against gay people in the name of their brand of religion.

Among the legislators present today was one Republican on the House side, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw. Sen. Jim Hendren, the governor’s nephew, is a Republican as well. Democrats Rep. Fred Love and Sen. Joyce Elliott spoke at the event. Another Republican from the Senate, Dave Wallace attended the event. Republican Reps. Joe Jett and Dan Douglas (who leaves office before the next session) also are sponsors.

“Why do we have to struggle to do the right thing for our state?” Elliott asked. But she said it likely would be a struggle. She noted the legislation was introduced first in 2001 and she couldn’t get the bill out of House Judiciary after Senate passage. She said clergy turned out to oppose the bill, particularly the part covering sexual orientation. She refused to take sexual orientation out. “I’m proud I refused because here we are 20 years later and I have faith we’re going to do this.”

Nicole Clowney said the legislation was needed to demonstrate all are safe and treated equally in Arkansas. She mentioned the recent killing in Little Rock of a 17-year-old transgender woman.

Rep. Tippi McCollough (D-Little Rock) said she was a member of a group, LGBT, to be protected by the bill. She, too, cited violence against minority groups. “It’s not OK to prey on the disadvantaged or unempowered.”

Jeff Wardlaw said Arkansas “should not be last” in adopting such legislation.

Randy Zook said the bill made “good business sense.”

Attorney General Rutledge focused on the racial element of hate crime, beginning with the mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C. church, and including the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of police and of a white child killed by a black neighbor. “We will not tolerate hate in the natural state,” she said. Legal discrimination is, I guess, not hate.

Mark DeYmaz of the Mosaic Church closed with a reference to a statement by 70 pastors supporting the legislation.

Here’s Hendren’s news release on the legislation. He notes that it includes a section to make it a class C felony to falsely accuse someone of a hate crime. His summary:

It would enhance penalties for existing offenses, by no more than 20 percent, only after law enforcement authorities proved that the perpetrator chose the victim because of the victim’s race, national origin, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

 

The bill includes a reporting requirement for law enforcement agencies on hate crimes.

Here’s the legislation.

UPDATE: Here’s homophobe Jerry Cox, leader of the religious right Family Council, defending hate as expected:

Hate crimes legislation punishes people for their thoughts and beliefs. In other states, laws carving out special protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identify have been used to target Christians who disagree with same-sex marriage. No one should be punished for what they say or believe.

Unfortunately, hate crimes laws simply do not work. These laws have not prevented hate crimes in other states, and they won’t prevent hate crimes in Arkansas. We wish there were a way to eliminate hate by passing a law, but it simply isn’t possible.

Supporters of hate crimes legislation in Arkansas are actively trying to persuade lawmakers and churches to support this bad proposal.

That’s why I hope you will contact your state senator and state representative and the pastor of your church.

Ask all of them not to support the governor’s hate crimes proposal.