FILE – In this Dec. 6, 2018 file photo, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks about his agenda priorities for the next legislative session, in Zionsville, Ind. Holcomb wants to Indiana from a short list of the five member states that do not have a hate crimes law. But as the annual legislative session in this deeply conservative state approaches, some caution that the debate could spiral into a bitter culture war. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
INDIANAPOLIS – The spraying of a swastika outside of a suburb of Indianapolis synagogue this summer was the final straw for the Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who quickly called for Indiana to join the 45 states that have hate crime legislation.
“It is not only the right thing to do, it is much too late,” Holcomb said Friday during an interview with The Associated Press. “I am convinced that the vast majority of Hoosiers feel the same way.”
The annual legislative session approaches, although some warn that such a proposal could spark a bitter cultural debate that unwanted attention to the deeply conservative state, just as the 2015 religious objections to law that critics widely panned as a sanctioning of discrimination against LGBT community, and that drew a strong rebuke of big business.
“If this is a big, knock-down, drag out, ‘RFRA-like’ discussion, it’s not going to help anyone,” said House speaker Brian Bosma, using an acronym for the 2015, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by the Vice-President Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana. “We must do it in a way that is not a net negative, and brings unnecessary attention to our state.”
Bosma would know. The Indianapolis Republican, helped shepherd a bill to “fix” the bill through the Statehouse measures that were taken after the companies protested, the groups promised a boycott and the state was lampooned on late-night TV.
An overwhelming majority of states, hate crime laws, which vary to a certain extent, but generally stronger sentences to be given to people who are convicted of crimes motivated by hate or bias. Only Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Arkansas.
What remains to be seen is what kind of law would be palatable to Indiana legislators — or open-ended and general, or that would specify attributes that would be covered, such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and that is what Holcomb wants.
While many business leaders support the governor’s call for a hate crime legislation, and view the absence of a as a sign of intolerance, many religious conservatives, including a number of rank-and-file lawmakers, see it as an unnecessary exercise that could lead to other undesirable social changes.
For years, they have an obstacle in efforts to get a hate crime law on the books, with the argument that judges can consider factors such as bias in determining the sentences.
“Nobody is for hate crimes, but it is a Pandora’s box,” said Ron Johnson, who leads the Indiana Pastors Alliance, and believe that Christians are persecuted by gay rights supporters. “It opens the door to the rest of this craziness that we see.”
Some conservatives claim that the introduction of hate crime legislation would lead to a “protected” class of citizens and the granting of additional acceptance to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Another common refrain among lawmakers who oppose the idea that the purpose of “thought crime.” All crimes are bad, they say, regardless of what motivates them.
Holcomb says, “nothing could be further from the truth.”
“You want a moronic idea … that is your right,” he said. “But when it becomes a criminal action, you’ve crossed the line.”
For those who have received intimidating threats motivated by hate or bias, the problem is much less abstract than a lot of critics to portray.
In the U.S., the number of reported hate crimes increased by approximately 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI. In Indiana, the number has fluctuated in the past few decades, ranging from about 40 to more than 100 crimes per year that met the description.
But those numbers are depending on the law enforcement agencies categorize crime, which can be subjective, and how many of them report their statistics to the FBI, which can fluctuate.
Indiana has a complicated history when it comes to prejudices and intolerance. The state was a stop along the Underground Railroad, but in the 1920s, the local politics was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, with some estimates indicating that a quarter of the native-born white men were members.
In the 1960’s, the Indiana-born writer and diplomat John Bartlow Martin describes the state in a memo to Robert Kennedy as “suspicious of foreign entanglements, a conservative in fiscal affairs, and with a strong overlap of Southern segregationist sentiment,” according to Indiana historian Ray Boomhower.
Apart from the synagogue vandalism that prompted Holcomb to publicly call for a hate crime law, activists say graffiti swastikas are appearing in more public places. Last year, a man pleaded guilty to the battery after authorities say he attacked a woman in Bloomington, and shouted racist remarks and try to remove her headscarf.
And Matthew Heimbach, of Paoli, has become a prominent figure in the white nationalist movement, as soon as the vanguard of a group that described itself as “fighting to secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
David Sklar, deputy director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, said that the only reason why anyone would need to worry about a hate crime legislation “is if you’re a criminal.”
“Will pass a hate crime statute eventually stop a hate crime? The odds are probably not,” Sklar said. “But it is equally important to ensure that a person receives the right amount of the prison and for the state to say, ‘We will not allow these things and we make our laws reflect that.'”