The bias-crimes measure Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law Wednesday is a disappointment to those who wanted to see Indiana take the boldest stand possible against hate. The failure to pass a bill that includes specific protections for women and transgendered persons points to a disturbing reality about the Indiana General Assembly: the majority party's ability to make decisions affecting all Hoosiers behind closed doors.
The weakened, convoluted bill stole in from the Republican caucuses like “a thief in the night,” as Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, put it. Even the abbreviated list of protected categories in Senate Bill 198 was apparently too provocative to itemize. Instead, the measure merely refers judges who might be considering enhancing a sentence for a hate-based attack on people or property to a list in an existing law that mandates hate crimes simply be reported to the state.
Having arranged things in secret, most Republican senators had no reason to speak publicly about the bill. An exception was Ron Alting of Lafayette, whose Senate Public Policy Committee hearing on the issue produced a strong, comprehensive bill with bipartisan committee support that was promptly gutted by the full Senate in February.
“Politics is compromise,” Alting, his voice heavy with emotion, told his colleagues late Tuesday afternoon. “But we should not have to compromise on protection of people.” He was one of five Republicans voting no.
Legislators who wanted a strong, clear bias-crimes bill are left, instead, with a lot of maybes. Maybe the vaguer version will help deter hate crimes and help judges reach more appropriate sentencing decisions. Maybe Holcomb means what he says when he promises to push for a more inclusive law in the future. Maybe those in Indiana Forward and other groups that worked hard to persuade the state to do more will keep up the fight as well. There is a rapidly growing acceptance of the need for hate-crimes law – this newspaper, for instance, had been opposed to such legislation for years.
But the legislature has let us down too many times to count on any sudden change of heart at the Statehouse.
In 2015, there was RFRA; in subsequent years, pleas to expand the state's civil rights code have been routinely ignored. Little is likely to change as long as an unaccountable supermajority holds sway.
As a rule, Hoosiers are welcoming and tolerant, and they don't approve of bias-fueled speech or actions. Waiting on our political leaders to articulate those values hasn't worked. It's up to us to make Indiana's true nature resound by speaking up for tolerance and rejecting prejudice and hatred in our state. In our community. In our own lives.