Gov. Asa Hutchinson decided he wasn’t busy enough dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, so he’s added to his plate a hate crimes law he’s trying to pass in his last regular legislative session next year.
The bill would allow a 20% enhancement to criminal penalties for "crimes committed against a person due to the person’s attributes." The list of those attributes is long enough to reach the letter "L." They include race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, and service in the United States Armed Forces.
The bill would not create a protected class or prohibit discrimination. In fact, it puts us all in categories — several of them. It’s about sentencing in conjunction with another crime. A person of color could be prosecuted for killing someone because of hatred of white people, and vice versa.
Hutchinson Wednesday introduced the bill five months before the legislative session convenes. He said a hate crimes law would have been helpful during his prosecution 35 years ago of a white supremacist group. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge pledged her support and recalled seeing the South Carolina church where a white supremacist murdered nine people in 2015.
Also speaking were Republican and Democratic legislators — more Democrats than Republicans, which will be an issue in a Legislature that is 75% Republican. If it passes, it will be with 100% support from Democrats along with a majority of Republicans. As of Wednesday, there were four Senate sponsors, including two Republicans and two Democrats, one of whom is Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who’s running for Congress. Of the 18 House sponsors, 15 are Democrats. Of the 22 sponsors in both chambers, 15 are African Americans.
Among the effort’s leaders is Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, the Senate president pro tempore and the governor’s nephew. Hendren has been perhaps the most powerful senator during Hutchinson’s time in office, but his time as president pro tempore is ending. His successor, Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, is not a bomb thrower but was elected to the position under the premise of creating more Senate independence from the governor.
The governor has gotten most of what he’s wanted from the Legislature since being elected, with some compromises, but that’s politics. He was the first Republican governor in the new Republican era, and legislators often have deferred to him. But it’s been a while now. He’s governed from the center with a Legislature where many lean to the right, and some have seen his pandemic responses as too much control being exercised by one branch of government.
Big business wants this hate crimes bill. Hutchinson and other speakers stood between props plastered with the logos of some of Arkansas’ heaviest hitters, including Walmart, J.B. Hunt, Tyson, and Farm Bureau. Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook spoke in favor.
Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, the others being Wyoming and South Carolina. Supporters say that sends the wrong message. A big part of a governor’s job is marketing the state. Once next year’s session ends, assuming the pandemic also will be abating, that will probably be Hutchinson’s main job, along with preparing for his next one.
One vocal opponent of the bill is the Family Council, a conservative Christian organization that lacks those corporations’ big dollars but has much clout. Each election, it produces a voters’ guide that’s read by far more Arkansans than this column is. Its president, Jerry Cox, released a statement saying hatred cannot be stopped with a law. He said a hate crimes law could be used to punish thought and speech, and it would unequally favor special categories of people based on characteristics such as sexual orientation and gender identity.
Those last two categories will be the sticking points. If this were just about race, the bill probably would pass and might have passed years ago, despite the other philosophical concerns Cox mentioned. Elliott said one came close to passing in 2001 when she was in the House, but clergy members didn’t want those categories included. There’s a fear that this law or future laws could be used against Christians.
You’ve probably got a strong opinion about all this. I’m just telling you about the politics. Regardless of what you believe, don’t hate the other side. Lawmakers may debate whether hatred should be a crime, but it’s definitely a sin.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.