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New hate crime bill in the works, state chamber leader tells NWA Council

by Doug Thompson | February 19, 2021 at 7:37 a.m.
The Arkansas Capitol is shown in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Supporters of hate crime legislation are revising the bill to allay concerns of opponents in the Legislature, the president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce said Thursday.

The governor's office is working with supportive legislators and businesses to draft the new bill, President Randy Zook told the Northwest Arkansas Council. The biggest change from existing bills would be a higher standard of proof for determining hatred as a factor in such a crime, he said.

Zook addressed the council's winter meeting, which took place by video link because of the ongoing pandemic. The council is a nonprofit group made up of business and community leaders in the region. It supports passage of a hate crimes bill, Karen Roberts, council co-chairwoman, reminded attendees while introducing Zook.

Hate crime laws increase sentences for certain offenses because of the victim's race, ethnicity, sex, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or other identifying characteristics, such as military service.

Opponents criticize Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and House Bill 1020 by Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, as attacks on religious liberty because of its protections for LGBTQ Arkansans. Neither bill has made it out of the Judiciary Committee of either chamber. Both would increase the sentence and fines for a crime by 20% if hate is shown to be a factor.

The Arkansas Family Council, a faith-based advocacy organization, opposes the existing measures out of concern it could restrict both religious freedom and freedom of speech to oppose or criticize some lifestyles.

Another core problem with hate crime laws is they don't accomplish anything, said Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council.

"It doesn't make any difference as far as our opposition is concerned," Cox said of changes in a new bill. "They're all fundamentally flawed."

Hateful crimes keep occurring in every state where such a law is passed with no drop in either frequency or severity, Cox said.

Passing a hate crimes bill is vital for businesses to attract new talent and to recruit new business if the state is to avoid the stigma of being intolerant, Zook and other supporters have said.

"Right now, it might look like a heavy lift, but we've got to do it," Zook said. "We're one of three states that does not have some form of hate crime bill, and the other two -- Wyoming and South Carolina -- are actively pursuing such bills.

"Almost every chamber in the state and businesses based here that have a national presence support this," Zook said. "We can't afford to be the last state without a hate crime law."

Having more than one bill in the works on matters of importance is not unusual, Hendren said Thursday afternoon after being told of Zook's remarks.

"I'm sure there are other versions being worked on," Hendren said. "It's the normal process on a bill this controversial. Hopefully, we can get to something that will pass and is effective."

Zook's remarks to the council came hours after Hendren announced his decision to leave the Republican Party, citing the difficulty of getting government to function while lawmakers are so partisan.

Hendren's sister, Rep. Gayla Hendren McKenzie, R-Gravette, said at a recent public forum she and her constituents are concerned a hate crimes law could be misinterpreted and used to restrict freedom of speech and religion.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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