Senators Keep South Carolina Hate Crime Bill Alive For Now
South Carolina's effort to become the next-to-last state to pass a hate crimes law survived a challenge from some Republican senators who questioned whether it is necessary to add penalties to violent crimes based on someone's motives.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-10 to send the hate crimes bill to the Senate floor. Five Republicans joined Democrats to keep the bill alive in 2021 after they turned aside a motion by a Senate leader to pass it over. If the motion had succeeded, it probably would have doomed the proposal with five days left in the session.
The “Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act ” allows prosecutors to ask the same jury that convicted someone for extra punishment for a violent crime based on the race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability of the victim.
The bill is named for Pinckney, a state senator killed along with eight others in a 2015 racist attack on a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, a historic Charleston church founded in 1817 by slaves. Pinckney was the church pastor.
The killings gave a renewed push for South Carolina to pass a state hate crime law, helped this year by business groups that said the state may no longer be attractive to major and small companies if they don't join the 48 other states with a hate crime law. Arkansas passed a hate crimes law this year, leaving Wyoming as the only other state without one.
The white gunman in the church shooting was sentenced to death under federal hate crime laws.
“In his manifesto, he made very clear that his impetus in doing what he did was to start a race war and quite frankly that is the conduct that a bill of this sort is design to address,” said Sen. Ronnie Sabb, a Democrat from Greeleyville.
It hasn't been easy for the bill to make it this far. House members first removed protections for sexual orientation, creed, gender, age and ancestry, but then restored them after key supporters said that would gut the proposal.
The House did pass the bill after removing additional punishments for non-violent crimes such as vandalism and harassment and they have not been restored.
At Tuesday's meeting, several Republicans questioned the need for the additional punishments, saying crimes are crimes, no matter what their motivation.
Sen. Richard Cash wondered if the bill could be expanded to include a sports fan who beats up another fan over a bitter team rivalry or a student who hates their teacher.
"Street gang routinely try to harm each other just because the other person is in a different gang and they hate that gang. And that gang hates them. So should gangs be a protected class?” said Cash, a Republican from Powdersville.
Another Republican Sen. Chip Campsen supported the bill, saying it was narrowly tailored like once recently passed in Georgia. Campsen added that could help the state if another racist crime happens in the current social climate.
“Hopefully it will keep the temperature down a little bit,” said Campsen, a Republican from Isle of Palms.
The bill heads to the Senate floor, where there are five days left in the 2021 General Assembly's session. If it doesn't pass, it will remain on the Senate floor in 2022.
If senators do pass the bill, a conference committee of House members and senators will have until around the end of June to work out the differences and send it back to each chamber for a vote.