Republican lawmakers in South Carolina removed sexual orientation and gender identity from the list of protected categories in their hate crimes bill yesterday, partly out of unfounded fear that religious people will be punished under it.
“The mere fact in 2021 there is any disagreement on whether gays should be included in a hate crime bill is indicative of why we need the bill,” said State Rep. Justin Bamberg (D).
Related: South Carolina man threatened with a gun because he was “talking gay”
South Carolina is one of only three states that doesn’t have a hate crimes bill at all, and the state legislature is trying to remedy that this year.
The bill would enhance penalties for certain crimes if they are committed because of hatred towards a protected category. Murder and other violent crimes would carry up to five years more in prison if they are hate crimes, stalking and harassment would get perpetrators three years more, and people who vandalize out of hatred could get an extra year in prison.
Like other hate crimes bills in the U.S., it would not punish people for actions that are otherwise legal, just things that are already crimes. And it doesn’t punish speech by itself; if someone shouts slurs while assaulting another person, that’s evidence that the assault was motivated by hate, not a crime in and of itself.
But that didn’t stop the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee from voting to remove sexual orientation, gender identity, and age from the list of protected categories. The bill now only covers race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and physical or mental disability
“The FBI has stated that hate crimes against LGBTQ people are on the rise and if we can’t count on our representatives to pass a hate crime bill that actually includes one of the communities most impacted by hate-motivated crimes, then what’s the point of this bill?” Chase Glenn of the South Carolina Alliance For Full Acceptance told the AP.
House Judiciary Chairman Chris Murphy (R) said that he believes the LGBTQ protections should have stayed in the bill, but there just isn’t the support from Republicans in the chamber to keep them in there.
“The goal is to get a bill we’re going to be able to pass,” he said.
Subcommittee Chairman Weston Newton (R) said that this changes nothing because the word “sex” should include LGBTQ people.
“It’s taking out those specific labels in the bill, but then there’s United States Supreme Court precedent decided last year that the word ‘sex’ includes more than just sex, that it includes the homosexuality and transgender,” he told WLTX.
That seems optimistic since the decision he’s referring to, Bostock v. Clayton Co., only held that discrimination “because of sex” included anti-LGBTQ discrimination when it came to federal employment protections. The reasoning has not yet been applied to other areas of discrimination, to hate crimes laws, or to South Carolina law, and such a decision could take years to happen.
During the debate on the bill, Christian conservatives said that they were worried that they could be arrested for hate crimes if they preach about homosexuality.
“Without proper safe guards, hate crime enhancements open the door to the creation of laws that will chill and threaten religious liberty and stifle the first amendment,” said Tony Beam of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. “We want to be sure there are protections for people of faith who can express their religious beliefs without animus or hatred toward anyone.”
With hate crime laws already enacted in the vast majority of states and at the federal level, a minister has never been arrested for preaching. It is a constitutional right.
“This is just disappointing,” said state Rep. Beth Bernstein (D), who sponsored the bill and has been trying to get it passed.
The state does not currently have an LGBTQ civil rights law either.
The legislature is considering two bills this year that would attack transgender young people’s rights. The first would ban transgender girls and women from playing school sports.
The other would criminalize health care professionals who provide gender-affirming care like puberty blockers or talk therapy to minors and punish them with up to 20 years in prison. If that bill passes, teachers and school employees who know a student is transgender but don’t out them to their parents could also face 20 years in prison.