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Arkansas House sends governor stripped-down hate crimes bill

April 12, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd speaks to reporters at his office in the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas legislative leaders have introduced on Thursday, April 1, 2021, a drastically scaled-back hate crimes measure that no longer refers to race, sexual orientation or gender identity. “We believe this is a more comprehensive approach and it’s an approach that protects all groups and classes," said Shepherd, a Republican. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd speaks to reporters at his office in the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas legislative leaders have introduced on Thursday, April 1, 2021, a drastically scaled-back hate crimes measure that no longer refers to race, sexual orientation or gender identity. “We believe this is a more comprehensive approach and it’s an approach that protects all groups and classes," said Shepherd, a Republican. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Monday approved a stripped-down alternative to hate crimes legislation that longtime supporters of such laws have criticized as not providing true protections following a succession of new measures restricting the rights of transgender people.

The majority-Republican House voted 65-26 in favor of the measure, called a “class protection” bill, sending it to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk. The Republican, who has made enacting a hate crimes law a priority this year, said he plans to sign the bill into law.

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Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, along with South Carolina and Wyoming. Hate crimes legislation is also advancing in South Carolina’s Legislature.

The bill requires offenders to serve at least 80% of their sentence if they committed a serious violent felony against someone because of their “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.” Unlike an earlier hate crimes bill Hutchinson had advocated, the bill doesn’t refer to specific categories such as race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I believe we have a bill that can develop and garner the necessary consensus, that can send a strong message, that can be comprehensive in its coverage and can be substantial in its punishment,” Republican House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said before the vote.

The measure has the backing of business groups in the state, with the state Chamber of Commerce and Springdale-based Tyson Foods endorsing it. The bill, however, was heavily opposed by longtime advocates for hate crimes legislation.

The Anti-Defamation League, which had urged the state to enact a hate crimes law, has said it won’t count Arkansas as having one if the alternative measure becomes law.

“Instead of protecting vulnerable Arkansans, the bill sends the unmistakable message that Arkansas is at best indifferent to those traditionally targeted by hate, fear and violence,” Aaron Ahlquist, the group’s south central regional director, said in a statement.

Hutchinson said while he supported a more specific version, the bill he planned to sign would still provide greater penalties for offenders who target someone because of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

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“The protection provided and the increased penalties are the ultimate test, and while I preferred different language, I am confident that this bill accomplishes the objective of increased penalties for hate crimes,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

The bill was passed in a session marked a succession of efforts to restrict the rights of transgender people. The majority-Republican Legislature last week overrode Hutchinson’s veto of legislation that bans gender confirming treatments for transgender youth.

“In my opinion this bill does not check the box that I so desperately wish it could,” said Rep. Tippi McCullough, the top Democrat House and the only openly gay member of the Legislature. “I’m speaking up for those who are getting lost and remain invisible in the bill.”

Hutchinson has also signed into law a measure banning transgender women and girls from competing on school sports teams consistent with their gender identity, and another that allows doctors to refuse to treat someone because of religious or moral objections.

The bill also faced opposition from some Republicans who questioned the need for any kind of hate crimes measure and questioned how it could be enforced.

“We’re just satisfying some national need for correctness,” Republican Rep. Josh Miller said.

Seven of the 22 Democrats in the House voted for the measure, while 10 Republicans voted against it.

The measure was approved after the House rejected an effort by opponents to send the bill back to committee over the way it advanced last week. The chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday ruled the bill was approved by the panel on a voice vote and then immediately adjourned, despite calls from members for a roll call.