THE NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Senate bills advance; school bus law needed, but hate crimes legislation goes too far

The Indiana Legislature this week moved on two bills we’ve written about here, one we don’t support and one we do. Both took preliminary steps toward becoming law.

The Senate Public Policy Committee voted 9-1 Monday to advance Senate Bill 12, called a hate crimes bill, which would allow judges to impose additional penalties against those convicted of committing crimes of bias due to such factors as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and age.

Also Monday, state senators voted 49-0 in favor of Senate Bill 2 that would suspend a driver’s license for 90 days the first time a person is convicted of recklessly passing a stopped school bus. It would also create felony offenses to recklessly pass a bus and injure or kill someone.

We support the school bus bill, but we still think the hate crimes bill goes too far.

We have maintained that hate crimes laws may discriminate in favor of politically-favored victims, by enhancing a sentence when a crime is based on bias against a victim because of everything from race and religion to sexual orientation and gender.

A guest column written last year for by Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, pointed out a troubling example from 2004 when five women and six men were handcuffed and taken to a Philadelphia jail, where they sat for 21 hours before being charged with “ethnic intimidation” under Pennsylvania’s hate crime law.

Those non-violent offenders, he wrote, “including a 73-year-old African-American grandmother, … peacefully passed out religious literature on public sidewalks during the homosexual OutFest. Penalties for this ‘crime’ could have reached 47 years in prison and $90,000 in fines.”

The judge in the case, however, dismissed the charges as being without merit.

A hate crimes law can put the state on tricky moral and philosophical ground if, indeed, it leaves open the possibility of punishing people for what they think. As Clark pointed out, we must make sure that in America, “we punish people for what they do, not for what they think or believe.”

Though the Senate committee’s action advances the bill to the full Senate, whether it makes any progress toward the House remains in doubt. In 2016, the Senate passed a hate crimes bill, only to see it die after it failed to receive a hearing in a House committee.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 2 now heads to the House, where it stands a good chance of passing. The bill has been supported by the family of three children fatally struck by a vehicle while crossing a northern Indiana highway last year.

A 9-year-old girl and her twin 6-year-old brothers were killed in the Oct. 30 collision on Indiana 25 near Rochester. The driver who hit the children when they were crossing the road to board the school bus in the morning darkness, told authorities she didn’t realize she was approaching a stopped bus, in spite of its flashing lights and stop arm.

The frequency of incidents in which drivers disregard the flashing lights and extended stop arms of school buses picking up or leaving off children are excessive, and the law is designed to curb the indiscriminate carelessness and callousness of impatient and irresponsible drivers. We hope it passes.