KEVIN LEININGER: Indiana was right not to jump off the divisive hate-crimes cliff

If even voting for Donald Trump is now a "hate crime," maybe the concept has run its course. (AP photo)
David Long
Kevin Leininger

Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, asked a very sensible question earlier this month as the General Assembly prepared to debate a proposed “hate crimes” bill. Where, he wondered, is the evidence that such crimes are not already being adequately prosecuted?

Clark may not have intended it as such, but the question was purely rhetorical because many of the bill’s supporters seem more interested in sending a message than in protecting vulnerable Hoosiers. The proof came in the headline of the same Associated Press story that contained Clark’s concern:

“Advocates say hate crime law would help Indiana’s reputation.”

Got that? The law had to be passed in order to demonstrate the state’s intolerance for intolerance, which of course makes its failure this week proof that Indiana is still run by a bunch of morally suspect Republican rednecks. Or, as the AP pointed out, “Indiana has a reputation for intolerance . . . (and) is one of just five states without laws that specifically take into account crimes motivated by biases such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

My mother used to ask whether I would jump off a cliff if all my friends did, and that is a pretty good description of the rush to create an ever-expanding number of “protected classes.” Even when the intent is benign, the inescapable truth is that when some people enjoy elevated protection under the law, others are denied the equal protection to which they are entitled. History has not been kind — deservedly so — to regimes in which humanity is divided into various subgroups, each treated differently under the law.

The criminal code is not an economic development tool, but that concept seems to have been lost on those who insist Indiana must join the hate-crimes stampede if it hopes to appeal to new employers and residents. As State Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, pointed out Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court has already ruled that courts can punish bias crimes more severely by allowing judges to consider any factor they see fit, including things like race or gender identity.

“In the end, we were unable to come to a consensus on how to approach this issue. Some members felt that making a list in Indiana code would inevitably leave someone off, some felt the bill was fine as it was, and some felt that Indiana code already allows the ‘aggravator’ concept to apply in a bias-crime situation, which is true,” Long said in a statement. “I have no doubt the General Assembly will continue to discuss this issue moving forward.”

Is “hate” really rampant in Indiana, and are current laws inadequate to punish it properly? If so, advocates of such legislation have a good argument — and should be able to prove it statistically without resorting to the kind of emotionalism and fear-mongering that does far more to divide than to unite.

One of the most infamous “hate crimes” in American history happened in Texas in 1998, when three white men chained a 49-year-old black man named Robert Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to death. Future president George W. Bush was governor at the time and also opposed hate-crime legislation.

So the NAACP produced a TV ad featuring Byrd’s daughter, Renee Mullins stating that when Bush “refused to support hate crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again. Call George W. Bush and tell him to support hate crimes legislation. We won’t be dragged away from our future.”

Compelling? Perhaps, but hardly fair. Texas executed Lawrence Russell Brewer in 2011, Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence and the third man convicted in Byrd’s murder, John William King, is on death row. Would a feel-good hate-crimes bill really have sent a more powerful message than such deservedly severe sentences?

At times in its history, neither America’s laws nor the application of them have been fair. But the remedy is not to tilt the scales of justice in the opposite direction, but to balance them so everyone is treated equally under the law. That’s the sort of message Indiana should send and just did, which in the end will benefit even those who seem to have something other than justice on their minds.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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