By a very slim margin, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the hate crimes bill to the Senate floor, pushing what has become a major priority for the business community and equal rights groups closer to passage.
Senators voted 13 to 10 Tuesday to advance the bill, with several Republicans voting against it. Once the bill hits the floor, it will require two votes on separate days to pass the chamber. There are only five days left in the legislative session this year, though lawmakers could come back next January for the second year of a two-year session to consider the bill again.
The bill would allow prosecutors to seek additional penalties for certain crimes targeting victims based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin or physical or mental disability. Senators voted to add age and political opinions to the list of groups that, if attacked on those grounds, could trigger enhanced penalties.
The bill would only allow advanced penalties on violent crimes, such as murder, assault, armed robbery or criminal sexual misconduct. Penalties could be increased by up to five years imprisonment and an additional fine of up to $10,000.
South Carolina doesn’t currently have its own hate crimes law. Instead, prosecutors have to rely on their federal counterparts to pursue hate crime charges under the federal hate crimes law, but that rarely happens except in the case of high-profile crimes.
Proponents of the bill say it helps deter hate crimes from happening and also makes South Carolina a more inviting place for businesses looking to relocate.
The bill has opponents, though, who are mostly part of conservative Christian groups. Those members of the religious community argue that the bill could potentially lead to the prosecution of Christians for preaching. They have said they believe the passage of a hate crimes bill could lead to the passage of legislation to criminalize hate speech, which they believe would be used against them.
Lawmakers tried to assuage that fear during their meeting Tuesday.
S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, stressed that no one can be charged with a hate crime unless they’d already committed a violent crime.
“No religious speech is going to be criminalized under this unless you commit a homicide or assault first,” Campsen said. “That’s just a misunderstanding out there.”
Some lawmakers expressed other concerns about the bill Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Cash, R-Anderson, questioned why some classes should be protected while others are not. For example, he asked, why should those expressing a political opinion receive protection while someone giving their opinion about a specific sports team should not?
“How many different classes are we going to create of people who get extra protection?” Cash asked.
Cash also pointed out that solicitors would be given the decision over whether or not to pursue hate crime charges. Cash questioned whether solicitors who would apply the hate crimes law would be politically motivated.
“I think this is just going to be another way to divide us,” Cash said.
S.C. Sen. Josh Kimbrell, R-Spartanburg, said he was opposed to the bill because he believed it was not constitutional. Kimbrell said he worried the bill would be in conflict with the 14th Amendment, which gives all Americans equal protection under the law.
While South Carolina Democrats have been pushing for a hate crimes law for years, the GOP only recently began supporting the bill.
That may be due, in part, to the support of the move from the business community. Pushed to action by the Black Lives Matter protests that exploded across the country last summer, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and dozens of businesses began advocating for the hate crimes bill’s passage in December 2020. The bill also has the support of the law enforcement community whose leaders have spoken out in favor of the bill multiple times this year.
If the bill passes the Senate, it will head to a conference committee where a panel of House and Senate members will be tasked with ironing out differences.