City officials urge lawmakers to pass hate crimes legislation

By Ernest Rollins from the Herald Times

Local officials are urging Indiana lawmakers to pass a hate crimes law this session.

In a letter to Indiana Senate Leader Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, Bloomington officials and others call on lawmakers to support hate crime legislation that would “allow judges to increase sentencing when it has been determined that a crime has been motivated by bias against a victim’s characteristics that include, but are not limited to, their race, religion, color, sex, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, housing status or status as a veteran.”

Some notable signatories include people with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, the city council and clerk, the Monroe County Council and the Monroe County Board of Commissioners.

“Hate crimes and prosecuting them are sadly topical in Indiana in 2019,” Mayor John Hamilton said during a Facebook live town hall meeting Wednesday.

During the event, Congregation Beth Shalom president Lesley Levin said any law that passes must also address reporting requirements and enforcement.

Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff said Indiana law enforcement agencies currently are required to report hate crimes that occur in their community to state and federal databases. However, Diekhoff said, Bloomington is one of the few agencies that do so. And even though it’s required, he said there are no penalties if an agency does not report hate crimes.

Bloomington Human Rights Commission member Barbara McKinney said the city passed a human rights ordinance that tracks reports and provides ways for citizens to report them and offer support to victims.

Indiana is one of five states that does not have a hate crimes law on its books.

Talk of changing that picked up momentum in recent months, and a number of bills have been filed on the issue. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has expressed his desire to have a hate crimes law passed by the close of this year’s legislative session.

But supporters may face an uphill battle at the Statehouse. Some legislators question the need for the law, while others have stated their opposition.

Diekhoff disagreed with the concept that a hate crimes law would be akin to policing a person’s thoughts. And supporters of passing a law argue that incidents of hate crimes are under reported, in part because many police agencies don’t follow requirements and also because victims are hesitant to report to authorities.

Some are against the law because of the low number of hate crimes that get reported. Another hurdle is the concern of some lawmakers about who should be included. During a recent visit to Monroe County, State Rep. Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, described the bills being discussed at the statehouse as those with lists and those without. Bloomington Chamber of Commerce President Erin Predmore said that for some legislators, extending protections to transgender people is a sticking point.

While some members of the Monroe County community urge passing the law, others do not.

The Coalition of Central Indiana Tea Parties has sent state legislators a letter requesting they reject all attempts to pass a hate crimes bill. A Monroe County native and Indiana Conservative Alliance leader, Robert Hall, is one of the people who signed the letter.

The coalition argues that a hate crimes bill is constitutionally suspect as it violates Article 1, Section 23, of the Indiana Constitution, which states “the General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

Coalition members also cite the low number of reported incidents, and refute claims that companies will think twice about doing business with Indiana without a hate crimes bill on the books. They say businesses consider other factors, such as taxes and regulation, when making decisions.

Hate crime bills also do not align with the values of many Hoosiers and are unjust as victims of identical crimes are cared for less because “they don’t fall under a list of politically protected crimes,” the letter states.

“These bills are unconscionable because they show contempt for the moral and religious views of millions of Hoosiers by including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ as protected categories,” the letter says. “Such bills suggest that disapproval alone — even when expressed lovingly and peacefully — constitute hate or a hate crime.”

Even though the possibility of Indiana having a hate crimes law by the end of session is undecided, discussion of the issue is important. Doug Bauder, director of Indiana University’s LGBTQ+ Culture Center, said he hopes legislators reach out to those minority groups to try and understand their experience and points of view.

The proposed legislation challenges lawmakers “to start to think about what experiences may be like for other groups that live in Indiana,” Predmore said.