Debate on a hate crimes bill was emotional and, at times, heated Tuesday as a Senate committee kicked off conversation on the issue.
Indiana is one of five states without a hate, or bias crimes, law. The legislation would allow judges to impose harsher sentences if a crime was committed in part because of a victim’s characteristics – such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
More than a dozen people and organizations spoke in favor of the bill, including the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, a Bloomington transgender woman, and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
La’Kyesha Gardner, an African-American woman from Fort Wayne, spoke against the bill – but because she says it doesn’t go far enough. Gardner’s 15-year-old son Jason was beaten by a white man last year. The attacker, who used racial slurs, was recently sentenced to 30 days behind bars.
“But we look to you to help us feel safe,” Gardner told lawmakers. “Because as of right now, I am a Hoosier – but I wish that I wasn’t.”
Opposition to the measure it primarily driven by religious conservative groups. Attorney Jim Bopp says creating a list of those who should be protected lessens protections for everyone else.
“Now I understand that there are liberal elites and corporate bigwigs that now think that we ought to have a special list of people that we protect,” Bopp says.
And Indiana Family Institute President Curt Smith says the bill is searching for a problem.
“What if Hoosiers really are tolerant and welcoming?” Smith says.
Muslim Alliance of Indiana’s Aliya Amin citied several recent cases of hate-motivated crimes against Hoosiers. And she says the bill is about more than just those incidents.
“It is about telling our Hoosier neighbor, ‘You are safe,’” she says. “It is about allowing our children to grow up in an Indiana where they can be proud of who they are instead of hiding their identity out of fear.”
Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness says beyond the moral case, there’s an economic argument for the bill.
“This bill is critical to demonstrate to the state, the country, and the globe that we are a culture of inclusivity,” Fadness says.
Similar bills have failed to pass in several recent sessions.
The committee will consider amendments and potentially vote on the this year’s legislation next week.