SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would define the parameters for a hate crime and increase the penalties for it passed a Senate committee Thursday before a packed committee room.

Sen. Stephen H. Urquhart, R-St. George, is sponsoring the bill that would replace current hate crime legislation, which was passed in 1992.

The current legislation doesn't spell out any requirements for the labeling of a hate crime, so no one has ever been convicted under that law, according to Cliff Rosky, University of Utah law professor.

The bill defines a hate crime as any act against a person for ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. It would also increase the penalty for a crime motivated by hate.

Rosky added that under current law, only misdemeanors can be defined as hate crimes, so a homicide case wouldn't qualify.

According to a joint resolution that would have to be passed in tandem with the bill, Urquhart said, speech or actions could only be punished if they are directly related to the crime.

Urquhart said he's voted against hate crime bills in the past because he was afraid it would set precedent for thought crime. The resolution would help avoid that.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he supports this bill because it increases the threshold for being convicted of a hate crime by requiring proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" for conviction.

Gayle Ruzicka of the Eagle Forum said she doesn't support the bill because she doesn't fit into any of the categories and wouldn't be covered under the bill. But Paul Boyden from the Statewide Association of Prosecutors argued that everyone is covered by this legislation because everyone has a race or a gender.

Some expressed concerns to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee that this bill would create divisions that last year's anti-discrimination legislation was intended to prevent.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross said he was struggling with the bill because he felt there were some classes being left out, such as obesity or supporting a certain sports team.

Thatcher expressed his deep feelings about the bill by providing a comparison.

"A child playing with matches is much more likely to cause tremendous property damage than someone who plants a cross in a man's yard and sets it on fire," Thatcher said. "Is one worse than the other?"

Thatcher argued that, yes, the intent behind the acts makes burning a cross worse than the other.

Jean Hill, a representative from Catholic Diocese, said the bill is much needed. "When discriminatory attitudes lead to criminal acts, we need to repair the wounds, including the wounds intentionally inflicted on the basis of deep-seated prejudice."

Senate Minority Asst. Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the hate crime legislation is important because of America's past history of racism.

"We need to acknowledge that history because we don't want to repeat history," she said. "This is trying to amend issues that are real."

Urquhart agreed. "This is the great debate of America. It's over equality. It's over what it means to be part of American society, what is the tapestry of this great nation."

He also cited Utah's Mormon pioneer heritage as an important reason to support the bill. "It's the reason we're all here," he said.

The committee passed the bill 5-1.

Email: elarson@deseretnews.com