COLUMBIA, S.C. — A group of South Carolina lawmakers have added back protections for gay or transgender people to a hate crime bill, five days after removing them.
But they then voted to remove stalking and harassment from the crimes that could add an extra hate crime penalty, leaving the proposal only to deal with violent offences
The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee 23-0 on Tuesday and now heads to the House floor.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat, has pushed for a state hate crime bill since nine black church members were killed in a racist attack at a Charleston church in 2015. He said removing non-violent offences from the proposal is troubling.
But he agreed with Republican leaders that the key was to get the bill to the House floor and approved before an April 10 deadline, after which the proposal would be nearly impossible to pass.
“We changed it back once. We can keep fighting as long as it is alive,” Gilliard said.
LGBTQ groups were stunned Thursday when sexual orientation and gender were removed from other factors such as race, religion or disability in determining if a hate crime has been committed. There was little discussion as those factors were added back in.
South Carolina, Arkansas and Wyoming are the only states in the U.S. without a hate crime law. Business leaders in South Carolina have made passing one their top priorities.
Republican leaders are juggling the desires of the business community and the fears of some of their more conservative members that the bill could infringe on religious groups. They worry they could be charged with stalking or harassment when they speak out against homosexuality or abortion.
Hate needs to be fought no matter whether it leads to a horrific killing or racist or anti-Semitic vandalism, Rep. Weston Newton said.
“I believe in it. I think it needs to move forward," the Bluffton Republican said of the bill. “But sausage making isn’t pretty.”
The Democrats who sponsored the bill have threatened to vote against it if it's watered down. Rep. Beth Bernstein reluctantly decided not to oppose the amendment removing stalking and harassment from the bill.
“If a black church is desecrated with graffiti using the n-word, that would not be a hate crime," said Bernstein, a Columbia Democrat, of the measure.
House members have already removed the ability to sue in civil court for a hateful act and given judges wider discretion to the sentence that can be added to a crime if it is determined to have been motivated by hatred.
The bill would add up to five years in prison for someone convicted of murder, assault or other violent crime fueled by hate. If the other provisions are restored, the bill would add up to three years for stalking or harassment and an extra year behind bars for vandalism.
The Judiciary Committee also unanimously agreed to name the bill the “Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act" after the state senator who also was the pastor of Emanuel AME church when Dylann Roof sat through a Bible study class, then killed Pinckney and eight others in a June 2015 racist massacre.
Roof was convicted of hate crimes in federal court and sentenced to death.
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Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press