The Legislature may be voting on a hate crimes bill in the regular session of the 93rd General Assembly, which starts in January.

“There is a hate crimes bill that has been filed,” said Jimmy Gazaway, who represents the 57th District (including Paragould and adjacent areas of Greene County). “Some Republicans are for it, and Democrats in general are for it,” he said.

But in its current form, Gazaway, a Republican, doesn’t like it. The bill, Senate Bill 3, calls for enhanced punishment “for certain offenses committed against a person due to the person’s attributes; and to require an annual report concerning the commission of hate crimes in Arkansas.”

Even so, Gazaway qualified his distaste for the bill. “There’s nobody who doesn’t want to punish people who commit crimes based on hate,” he said.

On the other hand, Gazaway said he doesn’t want to see the law (assuming it passes both houses and is signed into law) “carve out special classes, protected classes” or result in the stifling of free speech in churches, in congregations or from pastors. “That’s a huge concern,” he said. “But if there is language [inserted] to address all the concerns, I can do it.”

As written, SB3 would create section 5-4-708 of the Arkansas Code, Annotated (ACA), establishing enhanced penalties for offenses committed against a person based on the victim’s “race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in United States Armed Forces.”

The enhanced penalty, according to subsection (d)(2)(A) through (C) of the bill, amounts to 20 percent increases in any imprisonment, fine and/or probation period ordinarily required by the statue under which the offender was convicted.

Gazaway explained his concern was that a hate crimes law could constitute a potential slippery slope.

“There are other countries where hate crimes laws have become hate speech laws,” he said. In such cases, Gazaway said, clergy have been arrested for preaching what they understood to be scriptural truth. “In a society that values free speech,” he said, “this is dangerous.”

As an example, Gazaway pointed to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Gen. 18:20 through 19:29. “Based on interpretation,” he said, “God destroyed the cities due to their lifestyles. Preachers that preach [from that scripture] shouldn’t have to face arrest. So it’s a slippery slope.”

As if in anticipation of some of Gazaway’s concern, SB3 states it does not “serve as a basis to create a protected classification,” among other things. And it amends ACA 5-53-131 (frivolous, groundless, or malicious prosecution), specific to ACA 5-4-708, to provide that anyone knowingly seeking or aiding such prosecution to seek a sentence enhancement under that section faces a Class C felony charge.

The bill also amends ACA 5-54-122 (filing a false report with law enforcement) to add violation of the above hate crime section, (5-4-708) as a Class D felony.

Gazaway said that although SB3 is the only hate crimes legislation that has been filed, he said he had heard talk of other bills singling out individual groups for such protection.

On the other hand, state Rep. Reginald Murdock (a Democrat who represents the 48th District, including Marianna) took care to point out that SB3 has only just been introduced. A co-sponsor of the bill, Murdock proclaimed his support for hate crimes legislation in general. “But I understand the concerns,” he said, “and this is nothing new.”

In any case, Murdock said, like all newly filed legislation, SB3 should best be considered a working document. “It’s ‘way too early to get into [specific discussions],” he said. “But hopefully we can get something where we can all agree.”

State Rep. Joe Jett (a Republican representing the 56th District, including parts of Greene County) is also one of the cosponsors of SB3. And in his view, Gazaway’s concerns over the slippery slope could be premature, and not supported by the language of the bill in the first place.

“There’s nothing about speech in the bill,” Jett said Friday. “Speech is not a crime and this [bill] isn’t about speech.”

Besides, he said, any effort to seek criminalization of what clergy say from the pulpit would not go unchallenged. “I’ll push back on that,” he said, noting he is a deacon in his Southern Baptist Church.

Jett went on to say that Arkansas is one of only three states that has no laws against hate crimes. “I think the average Arkansan would be appalled to know that,” he said.

According to www.forbes.com, the other two states are Wyoming and South Carolina.

Jett went on to say that most people who are familiar with SB3 would not see a possibility of alleged “hate speech” being classified as a hate crime by the bill, even in its current form. “We’re not going to start locking people up for what we disagree with them on,” he said. “[The bill is] based on people being victimized because of who they are, like for the color of their skin.”

In any case, Jett echoed Murdock’s view that any piece of proposed legislation should not be considered the final word on its subject matter.

“I don’t foresee any bill coming out of the legislative process the same way it went in,” he said.

Jett concluded by saying that Senate Bill 3 simply gives a prosecutor another weapon to punish those who single out victims for violence based on skin color, religious or ethnic status and so on. “I think that once people recognize that,” he said, “they’ll support it.”

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