LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas legislative leaders on Thursday introduced a drastically scaled-back hate crimes measure that no longer explicitly refers to race, sexual orientation or gender identity, drawing the ire of longtime proponents of such laws.
The new bill removes other specific classes that were covered in a hate crimes measure introduced last year that hasn’t even made it as far as a committee hearing, including sex, disability or military service. Instead, it refers to crimes committed against someone because of their “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”
Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, along with South Carolina and Wyoming. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made enacting one a priority this year, but the effort has stalled due to resistance among conservatives in the majority-Republican Legislature.
“We believe this is a more comprehensive approach and it’s an approach that protects all groups and classes,” said state House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, a Republican.
But the Anti-Defamation League, which has been urging lawmakers to pass hate crime legislation, said the bill is worded so vaguely that it could even offer protections to Nazis and white supremacists. The group said it would not count Arkansas as having a hate crimes law if the measure is enacted.
“The legislation filed today is in no way a hate crime bill and is nothing more than an insult to vulnerable communities targeted by hate,” Aaron Ahlquist, the group’s south central regional director, said in a statement.
The reworked bill was introduced during a legislative session when several measures targeting transgender people have easily passed. Hutchinson has signed laws banning transgender women and girls from school sports teams consistent with their gender identity, and allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone based on the doctor’s religious or moral objections.
Hutchinson is also considering signing into law a bill that would make Arkansas the first state in the country to ban gender confirming treatments for transgender youth.
Republican state Senate President Jimmy Hickey, the new hate crimes bill’s chief sponsor, said he believes it would include crimes targeting transgender people. But he said it would cover crimes committed targeting others, citing Baptist preachers as an example.
“It’s more fair this way,” Hickey said.
The state Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposal, and said such a measure was needed to help attract and retain jobs. Springdale-based Tyson Foods, which has supported the push for hate crimes legislation, said it supports the latest proposal.
The original measure introduced last year called for up to 20% additional jail times or fines for targeting someone protected by the legislation. Under the new measure, offenders instead would be required to serve at least 80% of their sentence. It also narrows the offenses covered to violent felonies, including murder, aggravated assault and arson.
State Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent who sponsored the initial hate crimes bill that spelled out the groups covered, said he was glad to see movement on the issue. But, Hendren acknowledged, “there is a lot of space” between the two proposals.
Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott, who has advocated for hate crimes legislation since 2001, said she could not support the latest plan, which she called “cloaked in vagueness.”
“If we’re going to have a hate crimes bill we need to have something that is clear and obvious and says what it means,” Elliott said. “This does not do that.”
Efforts to enact a hate crimes law in South Carolina this year have also faced resistance. Protections for gay and transgender people were removed from the legislation but restored days later.