LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas Senate panel advanced a drastically scaled-back hate crimes bill on Monday that longtime supporters of such legislation have derided for not including specific references to race, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the measure, which requires someone to serve at least 80% of their sentence if they committed a serious violent felony against someone because of their "mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics."
Unlike a hate crimes measure that has stalled, the bill doesn't refer to specific categories — which also include sex, disability or military service. The new measure doesn't refer to hate crimes, and sponsors have instead called it a "class protection" measure.
Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, along with South Carolina and Wyoming. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made enacting one a priority this year. The head of the state's top business lobbying group urged lawmakers to pass the latest measure, saying it was needed to help attract and keep jobs in the state.
"People turn down jobs because of what they learn what is not in our criminal justice system," Randy Zook, the president and CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce told the panel.
But the Anti-Defamation League, which has been urging Arkansas to pass a hate crimes law, has said it won't consider the state as having one if it enacts the scaled-back bill. The group said not naming specific categories protected dilutes the meaning of a hate crimes measure and makes it subject to legal challenges.
"(The bill's) failure to enumerate categories and name the hate not only would jeopardize the safety of some of the Arkansas's most vulnerable communities, but it would severely damage the state's reputation," Aaron Ahlquist, the group's south central regional director, wrote in a letter to the panel.
The original bill's sponsor unsuccessfully proposed amending the measure to include references to the specific categories, but voted to advance the alternative measure.
"I'm disappointed we don't have more buy in and more support from the people who it really impacts," Independent Sen. Jim Hendren, who nonetheless voted to advance the measure, said.
The new measure failed to win over the Family Council, a conservative group that has long opposed hate crimes legislation, though it had the backing of some Republicans on the panel who had resisted the original measure.
The bill is advancing during a legislative session where bills targeting transgender people have advanced. Hutchinson on Monday vetoed a bill that would have made the state the first to ban gender confirming treatments for transgender youth, though he said he believed an override by the majority-GOP Legislature was likely.
Hutchinson has said he supports the latest hate crimes proposal.
"While the original bill was probably the strongest, this one does move the ball forward, accomplishes a great deal in terms of protecting any group that might be targeted because of who they are," the governor told reporters.