IN Focus: Lawmakers discuss controversial changes to hate crimes bill

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- The Indiana Senate voted Thursday on a watered-down version of the state's proposed hate crimes bill, and passed it 39-10 .

Original language provided protections for specific groups, including people targeted for race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

Republicans stripped that language from the bill on Tuesday. The bill now simply reads, "A court may 'consider bias' in imposing a criminal sentence."

Several Democrats spoke against the measure Thursday afternoon, in a futile effort to convince the Senate to vote against it.

“I’m sincere when I say two words and a comma just don’t cut the mustard," said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. "We need to do more... and when you do look at the forty-five states who have passed hate crimes, they overwhelmingly include a list.”

However, Republicans maintain the amended bill protects everyone.

“I think we should be inclusive of everyone and I don’t think the list gets there," said State Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis.  "I can’t speak for everyone on this side if they think the list gets there, but for me the list is not inclusive enough.”

Now that the bill has passed out of the Senate, it will go to the House. Changes could potentially be made there or they could vote on it as is. It's unclear at this time when that vote might take place.

"Obviously what we're gonna try to do and it's gonna be a pretty heavy lift, is we're gonna see if we can get it in a form that would be acceptable to the House members and then if we can then we'll move it. But one thing we'll make sure is that everybody's included and nobody's excluded at all from the bill. But we do have a lot of work to do," said State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, the majority caucus chairman.

"I do think it needs to be tightened up and obviously we put those in for some reasons on my part as far as looking at lots of other states that have been successful with that for over 30 years in some cases," said State Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, one the bill's co-sponsors in the House.

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The change in language was a blow to lawmakers who had been pushing for the passage of a comprehensive hate crimes bill. That includes Governor Eric Holcomb, who has repeatedly called on lawmakers to pass a bill with protections for specific groups. Indiana is one of five states without such a bill.

Those who voted for the amendment said it was the most equitable way to do things in terms of fairness. But the vote is also bringing scrutiny to one state senator, who is also a candidate for mayor in Indianapolis.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody issued this statement after Thursday's vote:

"Today's vote sent a strong message to Indianapolis voters: when push comes to shove, Jim Merritt would rather stand with the out-of-touch views of his conservative allies than work to ensure that Indy welcomes all. For nearly three decades, Senator Jim Merritt opposed and killed hate crimes legislation. And in 2015, Merritt linked arms with Governor Mike Pence and supported RFRA legislation – the same legislation that did significant damage to the state and to Indianapolis. Four years later, it's clear Merritt is still more interested in being all things to all people, rather than fighting for equal protections for all Hoosiers. Senator Merritt is clumsily trying to serve three constituencies: his current Hamilton County constituents, the residents of Indianapolis, and the Senate Republican Caucus he heads up as Caucus Leader. And this week proved Merritt would rather vote with his caucus than his constituents."

State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) issued a statement, which reads in part:

“We must leave no doubt that Indiana welcomes all. We must leave no doubt that we are committed to inclusion. A fully inclusive bias-crime law makes it clear that targeted acts of hate will not be tolerated in Indiana. Let us hope that Senate Bill 12 evolves into such a law."

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It's not a conservative or liberal issue. It's not a ‘base’ or a ‘fringe’ issue. It's neither a purely economic or a social issue. It's a human rights issue. "

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce issued a statement, which reads in part:

“Unfortunately, what passed the Senate today does not meet the all-important criteria of a meaningful bias crimes law. The Indiana Chamber and its members will continue to work with all legislators to do just that. We agree with Gov. Holcomb that the current legislation does not even remove Indiana from the list of five states without a bias crimes statute."

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