Hate-Crime Bills Gain Support in South Carolina, Arkansas

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers are pushing for hate-crime bills in South Carolina and Arkansas, two of only three states without laws that penalize crimes motivated by bias.

Leaders in both Republican-led states have long resisted hate-crime bills, saying existing laws are adequate to punish crimes.

But many legislators say they feel a sense of urgency to take a policy stance after the killing of George Floyd and other Black people this year. The Georgia legislature passed a hate-crimes bill in a matter of weeks last June, following the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.

The Georgia bill, which became law with Republican

Gov. Brian Kemp’s

signature, increases the sentence in cases where the victim was selected on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation or other bias. It also creates a hate-crimes database.

Legislators in South Carolina and Arkansas have looked to the Georgia law as a model able to draw broad bipartisan support in a historically conservative state.

Legislatures in both states convene in early January.

Some business groups say a hate-crimes bill ranks alongside pandemic-related relief at the top of the business community’s legislative agenda.

“I always say the laws on our books reflect the values of our state,” said

Ted Pitts,

chief executive of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “It’s time for South Carolina to show that we don’t condone crimes motivated by hate.”

The organization sent legislators a letter earlier in December saying a hate-crimes law would “encourage prospective companies to locate here, workers to live here, tourists to visit here and families to thrive here.”

People attended a remembrance gathering in June for the nine Black people killed during Bible study in 2015 by a self-proclaimed white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.


Josh Morgan/Associated Press

In Arkansas, Republican

Gov. Asa Hutchinson

was flanked by a coalition of business and legislative leaders at an August news conference to announce the introduction of a hate-crimes bill. He said such a law would send a “right, consistent message across our state and nation that hate should not be tolerated.”

South Carolina, Arkansas and Wyoming don’t have a law punishing crimes based on bias, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In Wyoming, a state advisory committee backed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in a July report that the state needed to do more to reduce hate crimes. The commission recommended passing a hate-crimes law, but the Wyoming proposal hasn’t garnered the same public support as in South Carolina and Arkansas.

Some faith-based groups in both states oppose the bills, which they say risk eroding First Amendment protections on free speech.

“This gets over into the arena of punishing people for what they believe,” said

Jerry Cox,

president of Family Council, a conservative group based in Little Rock, Ark. “We’ve all been taught that you can believe anything you want, and we cannot punish you for that.”

South Carolina Rep.

Beth Bernstein,

a Democrat who heads a bipartisan House subcommittee on criminal-justice reform, said hate-crime laws don’t punish people for saying what they believe but for committing crimes motivated by bias.

She said she is optimistic that a bill will move fairly quickly through the House in January and February, but is uncertain about its prospects in the Senate, where Republicans boosted their advantage in the November election.

“Priorities might have shifted over there to pro-life and pro-gun issues,” Ms. Bernstein said.

South Carolina Republican

Gov. Henry McMaster,

a former U.S. attorney, has been cool to a hate-crimes bill in the past, but said he would wait to decide whether to sign or veto one based on the bill’s merits.

“We have a lot of laws that address what you would call hate crimes,” he said, of charges such as murder and assault, in a news conference earlier in December. “Whether there needs to be an enhancement is another question.”

Hate-crimes laws are long overdue, said South Carolina Rep.

Wendell Gilliard,

a Democrat who represents the Charleston district home to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine Black worshipers were killed in 2015. A white man,

Dylann Roof,

was convicted of federal hate crimes and other charges and sentenced to death in 2017.

“Nobody should be harmed or maimed because of who they are, what they are, their race, their sexual orientation,” Mr. Gilliard said. “Everybody has a right to life. We are not God. We cannot judge people on these premises.”

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com

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