- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah’s GOP-controlled Senate rejected a proposal to beef up the state’s hate crimes law and add protections for gay and transgender people on Wednesday.

The measure from Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart called for heavier punishments in crimes motivated by factors such as a victim’s race, gender and religion. It failed by a six-vote margin in the 29-member Senate. Lawmakers said they were concerned it could create special protections for some people and punish people for their thoughts.

“What it does is singles out certain classes of people and says if you attack them, we’re going to give you a stiffer sentence or penalty than if you attack someone else,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Supporters contend current state law is unenforceable and the bill would have boosted protections for everyone.

“There’s still is the perception that hate crimes legislation would only protect minorities, it would protect anyone other than white, male Mormons. That’s just not the case,” Urquhart told reporters later.

Utah is one of more than a dozen states with hate-crime laws that lack protections for sexual orientation and identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The bill’s fate was in doubt after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement urging legislators not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights. Mormon church officials declined to elaborate, but its statements have an influence on a Legislature where most lawmakers are members of the faith.

“After their statement, there was really no way to pass it,” Urquhart, a Mormon, told reporters Wednesday after the proposal failed.

During Wednesday’s debate, Sen. Jim Dabakis said the biggest argument he’d heard against the proposal “is that we had our quota last year of gay bills,” and therefore, the measure would have to wait for a few more years.

Dabakis is a Democrat and the only openly gay member of Utah’s Legislature,

“I’m not sure how many gay bills we’re allowed every year, but clearly we’re over it,” he said sarcastically.

Urquhart’s proposal and a companion measure clarified that a person’s membership in a specific group or hate speech alone cannot serve as evidence that something was a hate crime. The person’s comments or actions would need to be specifically related to the crime - such as stating an intent to attack a specific person because of their race, not past statements against members of a race.

A number of community and religious groups endorsed the plan. Utah’s current hate-crimes law doesn’t include specific protected groups. It instead speaks generally about crimes that cause a person to fear they cannot freely exercise their constitutional rights.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said Wednesday that the proposal could be called “terror crimes” legislation because the actions it punishes are crimes that terrorize a broader group than just one victim.

Urquhart is not running for re-election this year and said he’s hopeful that lawmakers will pass it in the future.

___

Associated Press writer Hallie Golden contributed to this report. Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.

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