COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina moved one step closer Wednesday to becoming the 48th state in the nation to pass a hate crime law.
House representatives gave key approval by a 79-29 vote on the proposal to allow harsher penalties for killings, assaults and other violent crimes motivated by hatred for someone’s race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability — all protected groups recognized by federal law.
“Protecting against violent criminal acts motivated by proven hatred is not a liberal or conservative issue,” said Republican Rep. Weston Newton, one of the bill sponsors. “It is not a Republican or Democrat issue, it is not a white or Black issue, and it is not a gay or straight issue.”
South Carolina is one of only three states — along with Arkansas and Wyoming — without a hate crimes law.
This year's bill garnered bipartisan support with more than 40 sponsors. All who voted against it Wednesday were Republicans.
Lawmakers didn't spend time debating the bill on the House floor Wednesday, though legislators have spent hours this session listening to testimony from business and faith leaders, law enforcement officials, LGBTQ groups and members of the general public.
The long-awaited legislation gained a boost this year from the state's powerful business community, which has said the lack of protection could stop expansions and deter new companies in South Carolina.
“This is a huge step forward for South Carolina and will let the world know that our state is not a place that condones crimes motivated by hate,” said South Carolina Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Morgan in a statement.
A final vote will come on a third reading before the proposal heads to the Senate.
The version of the bill advanced by the House Wednesday doesn't include nonviolent crimes after a House committee struck out enhanced penalties for stalking and harassment. House members also previously removed the ability to sue in civil court for a hateful act. Those protections could be added back later, lawmakers have said.
The legislation as is would add up to five years in prison for someone convicted of murder, assault or other violent crime fueled by hate. An additional fine of up to $10,000 could also be tacked onto these sentences.
Some conservatives are still concerned that the hate crimes bill might be used against religious groups who oppose homosexuality or abortion.
The bill is named after Clementa C. Pinckney, the state senator who also was the pastor of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church when Dylann Roof sat through a Bible study class, then killed Pinckney and eight others in a June 2015 racist massacre.
A jury convicted Roof of hate crimes in federal court and sentenced him to death.
Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.