ELKHART — Advocates for minorities are urging state lawmakers to overhaul a hate-crime bill passed this year by the Indiana General Assembly to make it stronger.
“The law as passed has caused a constitutional challenge coming from several groups here in Indiana,” said NAACP President Emeritus Franklin Breckenridge, committee chairman and forum moderator.
Senate Bill 198 was signed into law April 3, making stronger penalties for crimes motivated by the victim’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attributes. It protects against crimes related to the victim’s color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion and sexual orientation. It does not protect against crimes committed on the bias of gender, gender identity, age or sex.
Breckenridge told the crowd at St. James AME Church on Tuesday the law does not remove Indiana from the Anti-Defamation League’s list of five states without a hate crime law because it is vague and omitted certain protected classes.
“We urge the Indiana legislature to focus on passing a strong, inclusive, comprehensive hate crime law,” he read in a letter submitted by Jessica Gull of the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization geared at fighting against hate crimes for folks of all minorities.
Breckenridge said the NAACP is preparing for litigation concerning the constitutionality of the bill.
“We should react the same way whether there’s a shooting in a black church or a swastika on a synagogue,” said Marzy Bauer, women’s interfaith coordinator for South Bend’s Temple Beth-El. “It affects everyone of us as individuals and it doesn’t matter what group that individual belongs to.”
Bauer told the crowd that many religious individuals claimed to have concerns that the bill would, in addition to deterring hate crimes, target religious leaders who speak against homosexuality and transgenderism.
“A hate crime bill only addresses hate crime,” she said. “It doesn’t address speech. All the arguments against the bill are kind of made up.”
Goshen College Community Impact Coordinator Richard Aguirre said he spoke to legislators about the bill during the session, and he claimed they expressed a similar concern.
“They thought there would be a reverse backlash against those who might espouse a religious view uncompromisable with homosexual or transgender folks. They all said the same thing, ‘If someone is in a church, preaching against homosexuality, would that person be charged with a hate crime?” he recalled. “This bill has to do with action. It has nothing to do with free speech, but they continued to say that Christians of a very conservative persuasion could be accused of hate crimes.”
He said other legislators stated they didn’t realize Indiana needed the bill.
State Sen. Blake Doriot, Rep. Doug Miller, Rep. Tim Wesco, Sen. Linda Rogers, Rep. Curt Nisly and Rep. Christy Stutzman were invited to sit on the panel in Elkhart but did not attend the meeting, organizers said.
“The idea was to target our local legislators,” organizer Suzie Meeks-Wade said prior to the forum. “When this passed out of the committee it was by voice vote so we have no idea how our local legislators voted on the bill. As a female I find it hard that female legislators could vote in favor of this when it offers us no real protections.”
A legislative sponsor for amendments proposed by the NAACP is being sought.
“It’s really important to keep pressure on our local legislature,” Bauer said.
Tuesday night’s panel spoke on ways to help deter hate crime without the support of the Indiana legislature.
“We need a parallel strategy to educate our communities in order to prevent hate crimes, and I would suggest that the best place to start is with the young people in our public schools,” said Bob Feferman, community relations director at the Jewish Federation. “It’s obvious we’re not doing a very good job.”
He said young people are being exposed to hate speech and hateful ideas through social media, adding that the internet amplifies hateful voices and reaches more youth, and allows for isolated online forums of extremists.
“In order to immunize our young people from the influence of hateful messages in social media, I urge you to help your local schools with additional resources,” he said, encouraging stories of hate and racism to be shared with young people.
“As a teacher, I have learned that students can memorize facts for a test, but if you really want to change how they look at the world, you must find ways to reach their hearts.”
Goshen immigration law attorney Felipe Merino echoed his remarks.
“With 98 percent of my clients speaking only Spanish, I represent a lot of folks that are language minorities and from races and ethnicities that are exposed to discimination and bias on different levels,” he said.
He expressed gratitude toward Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman for the development of the Latino Advisory Committee.
“In interacting with the mayor and the kind of changes that are going on in Goshen, we’ve also been able to effectuate,” he said. Merino said the mayor fought to bring more young people into places of power in Goshen, such as the police department.
“That has helped our community tremendously,” he said. “When you talk about race relations and grouping, when the officer next to the guy pulling over the vehicle looks just like the guy being pulled over, there’s something that happens in the psyche. That begins to change the environment you’re in.”
Aguirre, with Goshen College, was reminded of the public’s ability to affect change as he recounted the fight against the Elkhart County immigration detention center proposed in 2018.
“I started a coalition that eventually grew to 3,500 members and included people from the faith community, nonprofits, education, business leaders, who came out against that,” he said. “Eventually I think we created enough of a stir that we turned the tide, and the business community, the elected officials and the chamber of commerce all came out against it and that proposal was eventually forgotten.”
“If we can get rid of a detention center, I think we have a good chance of getting improvements to this bill if we work together as a coalition and rally all sectors of our community, including the business community, to support a comprehensive hate crime legislation, and I think if we do that, we will force the legislature to take another look at this next session.”
Bauer, with Temple Beth-El, said potential victims of hate crimes must support one another.
“In order for a bill like this to pass, we all have to work together and show why it’s important to so many people in Indiana so we end up not being minorities anymore,” she said. “Ultimately we’re the majority when we all band together.”