INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday he will try to build public support for a hate crimes law, a week after the Republican-dominated state Senate stripped out a list of specific protected traits he had supported to get Indiana off a list of five states without such a law.
The Republican governor told a Statehouse news conference that he might not have stressed strongly enough to the public how important it is for Indiana to adopt a hate crimes law with a list of protected traits, such as race, gender, age, religion and sexual orientation.
Social conservatives oppose such a list and Republican senators voted last week to remove it, replacing it in the bill with the words "including bias" to current state code on factors a judge may consider in determining criminal sentences. That move immediately drew criticism from Holcomb, civil rights activists and business leaders.
Holcomb said he will encourage Indiana residents to contact their legislators and appeal to them to pass a law with a specific list of protected traits as the House takes up the issue in the coming weeks.
"They need to contact the legislators that vote — their legislator — and respectfully appeal to their hearts and minds why this is important not to just to them but to the life of our state and the future of our state," he said. "This is about now, but also where we're going to be in 5, 10, 15 years."
Holcomb has said that Indiana is "long overdue" to adopt such a law following the spray-painting of a swastika outside a suburban Indianapolis synagogue last summer. He's called it the moral thing to do and said it could also help with economic development because it would make Indiana appear more tolerant.
He said when this year's legislative session opened in early January that he would be "uber" involved in the hate crimes law debate, but has done little publicly to push for such a law beyond discussing it during his State of the State address six weeks ago.
Holcomb said Wednesday that his administration would be "hyperactive" on working for passage of such a law before the legislative session ends in late April.
Democrats are united in supporting the list and say Holcomb must be more vocal on the issue as 33 Republican senators showed they were willing to vote against one of his priority bills.
"This is going to need a concerted effort by all groups and folks around the state, starting with the governor and business leaders," House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said Tuesday. "We're going to really need their help."
Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson faulted Republicans for replacing the list with "two words and a comma," saying "It just simply doesn't get the job done."
The hate crimes debate follows the controversy over a 2015 Indiana law that critics said allowed gay people to be discriminated against. The law was later changed, but only after a national backlash and threats of a boycott.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said several Indiana business executives called him after the Senate vote to argue in favor of including the list, but for weeks he's warned of significant opposition among GOP House members to the full list.
While getting Indiana off the list of states without a hate crimes law is important for business recruitment, Bosma said opposition goes beyond including sexual orientation and gender identity in the proposal.
"There are plenty of people in our caucus who believe we should take no action on this, it is not a necessity, it's not an issue in their community," he said. "It isn't just about those two categories, it's about whether there is a list and whether we have to take this action at all."
An overwhelming majority of states have hate crime laws, which vary to some degree but generally allow for stiffer sentences to be given to people who are convicted of crimes motivated by hatred or bias. Only Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas do not.
Holcomb said Wednesday that Indiana needs a bias law that specifically details the covered characteristics, and suggested that lawmakers could simply take the wording from the federal hate crimes law and put that into state law for judges to consider in sentencings.
"I would use the specific words. I want to get away from the vagueness," he said. "I have a lot of respect for the legislators upstairs who have a deeply rooted legal knowledge, but I also know what gets us off the list and I've looked at other states that have been vague and that will just not suffice."