COLUMBIA — Legislation enhancing penalties for hate crimes advanced April 21 in the state Senate, but time is running out on its chances for becoming law this year.
Despite disagreements over the bill's specifics, a panel voted 3-2 to forward the debate to the full Senate Judiciary Committee, where a larger group of senators will consider amendments.
The measure that easily passed the House two weeks ago would allow up to five additional years to be tacked on to the prison sentence of someone convicted of an underlying violent crime. Prosecutors could pursue the add-on if the victim was targeted because of race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.
After years of similar bills going nowhere, the effort got a big boost this year with the backing of the state Chamber of Commerce, followed by the University of South Carolina.
Business leaders want to remove the stigma of South Carolina being among a list of three states without a hate crime law.
That list may be down to two after Arkansas' Republican governor signed a law last week mandating that people convicted of a violent crime must serve at least 80 percent of their sentence if their victim was selected due to "mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs."
Critics contend that's not a true hate crime law. Whatever that law's deemed, the only other states on that list are South Carolina and Wyoming.
"Whether we like it or not, it does send a message outside of our state to the business community," said Duke Energy attorney Tiger Wells. "Let's correct that message sent to the rest of the nation as to what we believe."
Despite the push from businesses, passage in the S.C. Senate this year appears unlikely.
Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, who led the Senate panel, noted the calendar could be the biggest obstacle. Three weeks remain in the regular legislative session, and debate on the state budget will occupy senators' time next week.
Moving the debate to full Judiciary at least gives it a chance, said Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Representatives of Christian groups told senators they fear the inclusion of "sexual orientation" could lead to condemnation of Christians in employment.
"Sexual orientation, gender identity is being used to turn believers into people portrayed as haters if they hold to a biblical definition of sexuality," said Tony Beam with the S.C. Baptist Association.
He cited the decade-long court saga of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who after winning a partial victory from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 went on trial again last month for refusing to make a blue-and-pink birthday cake for a transgender woman.
Even while recognizing the South Carolina bill involves only violent crime, Beam said he fears the "slippery slope" of the law's eventual expansion.
"I don’t want people for any reason to be the target of bigotry or racism or prejudice," he said. "But Christian evangelicals are also under attack as guilty of hate speech for simply holding to a biblical definition of sexuality."
Senators discussed tweaking the bill to make perfectly clear it pertains only to crimes. Other concerns included whether to specify the enhanced penalty must truly be added on to the underlying sentence, rather than potentially served at the same time.