South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The fate of a hate crimes bill that has become a focal point of the Indiana General Assembly session may be up in the air amid a rift between Republican legislators and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Local state lawmakers suggest the bill might not see a full vote in the Indiana House after an amendment last month watered down provisions advocates insist are necessary to get Indiana off the list of states without bias crime provisions.

The amendment, which some said “gutted” the bill, raised the specter of the economic and public relations fallout experienced as a result of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015.

“Essentially there’s no bill right now,” said Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend who is on Courts and Criminal Code Committee, where the bill is currently assigned. “There’s one pending in committee, but it’s not scheduled for a committee hearing.”

Originally, Senate Bill 12 would have given judges power to increase sentences for violent or property crimes because of a list of factors including the victim’s race, religion, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.

But an amendment by Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, replaced that list with simply the word “bias.”

That move led to broad criticism, including a public rebuke of the Indiana Senate from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb and opposition by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, civil rights groups and others.

Removing those characteristics, they say, would make the law less enforceable and also not satisfy the Anti-Defamation League’s requirements to take Indiana off the list of five states without a law. The other states are Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Dvorak said he’s not sure the bill will even be brought up during committee, let alone brought to the floor of the House for a full vote.

If the bill isn’t heard in committee by April 9, it would be dead for the year unless it is tacked on as an amendment to another bill.

Social conservatives have opposed the list of protections, with groups including the American Family Association of Indiana arguing that it would give overarching protections to transgender individuals.

On Friday, a letter signed by 16 presidents of independent colleges and universities called for legislators to institute a bias crimes law “with an enumerated list of characteristics.”

“Passing SB 12 as it stands today — without explicitly listing specific classes — will bring more harm to our state and further perpetuate the negative perception of Indiana,” the letter read. “It will push out more of our students and detract more talent from coming in.”

Signatories included Notre Dame President the Rev. John Jenkins, Saint Mary’s College interim President Nancy Nekvasil and Goshen College President Rebecca Stoltzfus.

The letter follows others from business leaders and national civil rights organizations urging legislators to re-insert language that would protect people on the basis of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Mindi Goodpaster, co-chair of Indiana Forward, the coalition that has pushed for the hate crimes law, said she’s unsure where members of the House stand on re- inserting the list of characteristics.

Goodpaster said previous conversations with legislators showed support from a majority for a general hate crimes law, but only if it didn’t include a list of specific classes.

“Now we’re setting up one-on-one meetings with all of the house members,” Goodpaster said. “The information they’re receiving — that if we don’t have a list, we don’t have a law — seems to be getting to them.”

It’s unclear if there are enough votes in the House to re-insert that list. State Rep. Ross Deal, D-Mishawaka, said his expectations are “somewhat guarded” on getting a re-insertion of the list passed, something he supports.

“I think that support is lukewarm,” Deal said. “I think we have our work cut out for us.”

One who doesn’t support a specific characteristic list is State Rep. Christy Stutzman, R-Middlebury.

Stutzman, wife of former Third-District Republican U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, said she opposes efforts to re-insert a list of characteristics, citing constitutional concerns and existing legal precedent that would allow trial judges to increase penalties in certain aggravating circumstances.

“We’re really facing a dilemma here,” Stutzman said. “We’re trying to cover all citizens equally, and we don’t want these (hate crime) cases to go unpunished.”

Stutzman said she believes the state constitution precludes the legislature from writing a law she says would create a “protected class” of citizens.

The bill, as written now, is something Stutzman said she would support.

“I hope we get a chance to vote on that,” Stutzman said. “But I don’t know that we will.”