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SC business leaders, police testify in support of hate crimes bill as House begins debate

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State lawmakers say their chance of passing a hate crimes law in South Carolina are better now than at any time in years past. The Palmetto State is one of just three in the nation without such a law. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — Prominent South Carolina business leaders and law enforcement officials testified before state lawmakers March 9 in support of a hate crimes bill, saying it will help prosecutors serve justice and send a powerful message that the state condemns prejudice and discrimination.

Their testimony kicked off the bill's first hearing in a House judiciary subcommittee for the 2021 session, when longtime advocates are hopeful the addition of influential supporters will help advance the measure further than it has in years past.

S.C. Chamber of Commerce chairman Tim Arnold, the president and CEO of Colonial Life, noted that South Carolina is one of only three states that has yet to pass a hate crimes bill, along with Arkansas and Wyoming.

"When we see that 47 other states are able to pass hate crimes law, it shines an unwanted light in our view on our state to prospective companies, tourists and workers," Arnold said. "It's important to us that South Carolina show the nation that crimes of hate will not be tolerated in our great state."

The legislation, H.3620, would enhance penalties for crimes committed against victims who were intentionally selected because of characteristics like race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, national origin, or physical or mental disability.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said the measure would give victims more confidence that justice would be served.

As an example, Lott pointed to a series of robberies that were committed against more than two dozen Hispanic people in the Columbia area over just three weeks. While police ultimately caught the perpetrators, Lott said the Hispanic community "lived in absolute fear for those three weeks."

"This is the types of crimes that we need to have something where we can hold them accountable," Lott said. "Right now, we can't hold them accountable. We haven't charged them with armed robbery. But the fact that they went out and hunted our Hispanic community, we can hold them accountable for that."

A special House committee worked to craft this version of the bill in 2020 after protests erupted around the country in response to racial violence and allegations of police brutality. Much of the language in the bill was modeled after a similar measure that passed in Georgia last year, subcommittee chairman Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said.

Introduced by state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, co-sponsors of the bill include both House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, and Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, giving it valuable support from some of the chamber's most influential members.

Representatives from Walmart, UPS, Duke Energy and AFLAC — major companies with a South Carolina presence — spoke in support of the measure, saying they felt it was important to lend their political muscle in a pro-business state to combat inequality.

"Standing up against hate crimes is a way of standing up for our diverse workforce, and it is an expression of solidarity with a diverse community of customers," said Brooke Mueller, Walmart's director of government relations.

Supporters noted the bill will not only protect minorities. Victims who were targeted for being White, male or Christian would also be covered under the law.

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After years of watching the bill struggle to gain momentum, Gilliard said he is hopeful that the boost of support from new groups will be enough to push it across the finish line.

"When you have a mixture of the speaker of the House, the business world, along with the churches, Mother Emanuel leading the way with its pastors and members, that's what we call working together," Gilliard said. "It's been a long time coming, and now we're finally getting down to the nuts and bolts of it."

Of the 26 speakers in the subcommittee hearing, only a few expressed opposition to the bill, and even those opponents said they only take issue with specific measures that were either included or excluded from the legislation.

South Carolina Baptist Convention public policy director Tony Beam and Palmetto Family Pastors Network director Mitch Prosser said they are worried that the provisions of the bill enhancing penalties for targeted harassment could be used by people to litigate against religious speech.

"We're not concerned about adding the statutes to the Criminal Code, adding anything to that to stop the hatred and bigotry, but we're just concerned about the religious liberty aspects that could be brought into play," Beam said.

Lawmakers questioned why those pastors were concerned about how the bill could be used against them when it only enhances penalties for already existing laws against violence and harassment that have not been used against them in the past.

"I think the concern would be that someone's definition (of harassment) in the future may in some way stretch that language a little bit," Prosser responded.

S.C. Citizens for Life executive director Holly Gatling added that she fears it could be used to file lawsuits against anti-abortion activists who protest outside clinics or encourage women to pursue other options, and she asked that language be added to make clear that it cannot be used for that purpose.

But Newton said he did not understand why those critics had not previously spoken out against the existing harassment laws on the books that could, in theory, be used for the same purpose. This bill, he noted, only enhances penalties for those laws.

A few other speakers took issue with the lack of "gender identity" as one of the protected categories listed in the bill, which the Alliance for Full Acceptance executive director Chase Glenn said could leave transgender and gender non-conforming South Carolinians at risk.

"Unfortunately, if we do not have a separate category for gender identity, data collection will be insufficient to properly identify and address the real impact of bias motivated crime on members of the LGBTQ community," Glenn said.

Gilliard said he would be open to amending his bill to address the concerns of both the pastors and transgender advocates.

The subcommittee is slated to hold another meeting later this week to debate the bill and consider whether to advance it.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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