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Hate crimes bill passes easily in SC House, boosted by business support

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Hate crimes

State Rep. Weston Newton speaks on the S.C. House floor to state Reps. Beth Bernstein and Wendell Gilliard, leading supporters of the hate crimes bill, moments before the chamber voted to pass it on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill to enhance penalties for hate crimes cruised through the S.C. House on April 7, taking South Carolina a key step closer to removing itself from a short list of three states without such a law on the books.

The 79-29 vote in favor of the bill followed surprisingly minimal discussion, as no lawmakers rose to speak up against the measure that had repeatedly struggled to gain traction in years past. All 29 votes against the bill were Republicans, but the majority party's leadership actively supported it.

"Protecting against violent criminal acts motivated by proven hatred is not a liberal or conservative issue," said state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, in a floor speech shortly before the vote. "It is not a Republican or Democrat issue, it is not a Black or a White issue, and it is not a gay or a straight issue."

The legislation, H.3620, would only enhance penalties for people who have already been convicted of an underlying violent crime. Punishment could be increased by up to an additional five years in prison or $10,000 in fines if a judge determines that the culprit targeted the victim due to a specific personal characteristic.

The long-debated measure received a boost of support this year from the state's influential business community, as several major companies warned that the ongoing lack of a hate crimes law would damage the state's reputation.

Days before the House vote, the University of South Carolina also signed onto the S.C. Chamber of Commerce's effort to pass the bill.

"The business community has made it clear to us and reiterated the fact that the absence of this type of message, this type of signal, this type of legislation challenges our competitiveness on the national and international stage to attract business here in South Carolina," Newton said.

Newton also pointed to statements from one of the state's Republican U.S. senators, Tim Scott, who said in 2018 while discussing a federal anti-lynching bill that "it is important that we send a signal to those with hate in their hearts that we will not tolerate these heinous actions."

After a perfunctory final vote in the House, the bill will move over to the Senate. If it passes there, it would head to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster, who has indicated that he has some concerns about "criminalizing thought" but is open to the possibility of signing the bill.

In a statement, S.C. Chamber CEO Bob Morgan thanked House leadership for supporting the bill and said they would continue to work to get it passed into law.

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"This is a huge step forward for South Carolina and will let the world know that our state is not a place that condones crimes motivated by hate," Morgan said.

The bill went through multiple changes in the committee process. After first stripping specific protections for sexual orientation and gender in subcommittee, lawmakers added them back in when it went before the full judiciary panel.

The other protected characteristics are race, color, religion, sex, national origin and physical or mental disability.

But lawmakers then removed sections of the bill dealing with stalking, harassment and vandalism, instead opting to limit the bill solely to violent crimes.

While those changes disappointed some of the bill's foremost supporters, like state Rep. Beth Bernstein, she said they opted not to try changing it back on the House floor because they viewed it as a "significant step in the right direction."

"Hopefully the Senate will work on some of the criminal offenses," said Bernstein, D-Columbia. "But we're very pleased with the protected classes and that we were able to get the hate crimes bill passed in the House of Representatives because it's been a long time coming."

A rise in hate crimes across the country combined with support from major corporations and House leadership helped get the bill across the finish line, Bernstein said, in contrast to previous failed efforts.

The list of states without a hate crimes law shrank last year after Georgia passed one following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man whose fatal shooting in the state was captured on video. Only Wyoming and Arkansas now remain as the two other states without a hate crimes law.

S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, tweeted that the bill's passage "marks an historic occasion and comes after months of hard work and bipartisan effort."

"This legislation is a monumental step forward as SC joins 47 other states in ensuring that heinous, violent crimes committed and motivated by hate are justly prosecuted," Lucas said. 

The bill was named after the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims in the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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