INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A big crowd was at the Statehouse Monday morning for a public hearing on whether Indiana should adopt a hate crime law.
The Senate Public Policy Committee voted 9-1 in favor of the legislation, which next heads to the full Senate.
The committee heard nearly three hours of testimony from both supporters and opponents of the proposed bill. The biggest hang up for Indiana is whether the law would include specific classes, like sexual orientation and gender identity.
The version state senators passed Monday includes that language. The draft covers bias-motivated crimes based on things like race, religion, color, sex, gender identity and disability. However, an amendment removed language that would have covered political affiliation and law enforcement as protected groups.
Indiana is one of five states without a specific hate crime law. Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to pass such a bill.
“I want to know that justice can exist for both myself and my family if something were to happen to me,” said Christi Sessa, a transgender individual from Goshen, Indiana, who testified in support of the bill.
Opponents maintain that judges can already impose harsher penalties for aggravating factors. They said bills like this punish people for thoughts and beliefs and that creating protected groups violates equal protection.
“When you start coming up with lists, you necessarily restrict and narrow,” said Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute, ”some people are on the favored list this year, maybe next year this committee or other tribunals would take them off.”
The bill would have to pass both the Senate and House before heading to Gov. Eric Holcomb's desk.
Holcomb says passing a hate crimes bill is a “priority” this session. “I don’t think it’s just the right thing to do – I think it’s overdue. And I think we’ll wake up after it’s completed – the sun will come up and we’ll have proof in our hand that we are that welcoming state that we know we are,” Holcomb told CBS4 in an interview.
State Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, issued the following statement following the bill's passage in committee:
“Today, Indiana took a step forward when Senate Bill 12 passed out of the Senate Committee on Public Policy by a vote of 9 to 1.
"I stand willing to work with anyone to ensure equal rights for all Hoosiers. This is an issue that is long overdue.
“Regardless of what has happened in previous sessions, it must be a new day in Indiana, and I believe this critical legislation should be given due consideration and thus passed. I agree with Gov. Holcomb that we must leave no doubt that Indiana is a state that welcomes everyone."
State Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, was a co-author of the bill. He also released a statement:
“I have been working to get a bias crimes proposal on the books in Indiana for six consecutive years now. This is a huge step forward for all those in Indiana who have ever been wrongly harmed or had their property vandalized due to the color of their skin, their religious affiliation or their sexual orientation.
“While I understand this bill still has a long way to go to protect marginalized communities in our state, I recognize the progress we have made in the legislature today. I urge all of my colleagues in the Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, alike, to support this proposal in its current form. I also urge the governor to sign this bill into law when it comes time.
“Today, Indiana sent a message to the rest of the country that in this state we do not accept crimes targeting someone’s perceived or actual characteristics. This will not only make Hoosier lives better, but will also create a more welcoming state for business and economic development.
“I want to thank the chairman of the committee for accepting my amendments to this bill to ensure that those who are targets of crimes committed due to a bias are given relief in the knowledge that those who commit a crime against them will receive an aggravated sentence.
“I am excited to be a co-author of this proposal, for which I have fought for over six year, and I know will make a real difference in our state and I look forward to seeing its continued progress through the legislature.”