Hate crime bill stalled for almost a year in South Carolina Senate

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Supporters who want to make South Carolina the next-to-last U.S. state to pass a hate crimes law, increasing penalties for some crimes fueled by race, gender or sexual orientation, are running out of time to get what could be a decisive vote in the state Senate.

They brought survivors of a racist massacre that killed nine Black worshipers in a Charleston church in 2015 to speak to senators. They have had more than 100 businesses tell lawmakers that South Carolina needs to demonstrate hate will not be tolerated. They have tried any legislative maneuvers they can to get the bill up for debate.

But the hate crimes bill that passed the House 84-31 in March of last year has sat on the Senate’s calendar for nearly a year. If it isn’t approved by early May, it will die — just like a similar bill that made it that far in 2021 before the Senate did nothing with it.

When asked Wednesday about the chance for a vote, Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey simply said, “don’t hold your breath.”

South Carolina Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, talks to a fellow senator on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 in Columbia, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Thirty of South Carolina’s 46 senators are Republicans and enough of them back the bill that supporters think it can succeed if brought to a vote. But a few conservative Republicans — the numbers fluctuate — keep blocking debate.

“It seems like if you want to get rid of it, the most efficient and fair way to get rid of it is to have a vote,” said Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, a Democrat from Walterboro who took her seat after the death of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor killed in that 2015 racist massacre at Mother Emanuel AME church.

The opponents of the bill don’t say much about the measure. They have said that many crimes are caused by hatred, and that it is dangerous to try to divine someone’s thoughts.

They also are worried a hate crimes law could be used to go after a preacher who vociferously spoke out against gay marriage or LBTBQ issues, although supporters of the bill on the Senate calendar limited additional penalties to violent attacks after agreeing to remove vandalism from the proposal.

But most of the time they just let the bill sit quietly.

South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states that don’t allow for enhanced penalties if a crime was motivated by hate. A federal hate crimes law in 2009 was used to send the Emanuel church shooter to death row. And last week it was used to convict a man of killing a Black transgender woman after their secret sexual relationship was exposed. That was the nation’s first federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity.

But there are limits on how many hate crimes federal prosecutors can take up. The FBI said 70 crimes based on bias were committed in South Carolina in 2022, most of them because of race.

Last year, supporters tried to sway opponents by getting two of the three survivors of the Charleston church massacre to testify before a subcommittee.

Polly Sheppard briefly recounted how every one of the Black worshipers was shot multiple times by a white gunman. Then he told her he was only leaving her alive so she could tell people he killed them because he hated the color of their skin.

“If we had a better law, it wouldn’t allow these people to do the things they do,” Sheppard said.

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Back in 2021, they had more than 100 business leaders from some of the state’s largest employers like Walmart, IBM, UPS, Duke Energy and pharmaceutical maker Nephron sign a letter asking for the hate crimes law and talking to reporters. A similar lobbying push hasn’t happened this General Assembly session.

Some local communities are taking action themselves. At least a half-dozen cities — including the state’s largest of Charleston, Columbia and Greenville — have passed their own hate crimes laws. They have been spurred in part by heavily reported incidents across the state where flyers expressing hatred for Jewish people have been placed in driveways.

Conway City Council is considering a hate crimes law after authorities said a white South Carolina couple set a cross on fire in their yard last month facing toward their Black neighbors’ home. The FBI is investigating.

The South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee last week passed its own hate crimes bill similar to the House’s version already on the Senate calendar with one difference — the newer bill says nothing in it can be construed as violating freedom of speech.

When the hate crimes bill occasionally comes up in the Senate, it is only tangentially. Last week, Matthews and fellow Democratic Sen. Mike Fanning talked about it during debate on a bill permanently limiting the number of flounder that can be caught in state waters.

Matthews contested the bill just like conservative Republicans contested the hate crimes proposal. It was in a part of the Senate’s 34-page calendar where bills likely need a special action to be considered.

“This is the closest we’ve been to getting to debate that hate crime bill in years. But instead, we are going to debate flounder and going home,” Fanning said.

“I guess it is important to take fish out of people’s mouths,” said Matthews, who opposes keeping the limits in place because she has poor people in her district who fish to feed their families. “It’s important to keep them from catching 10 fish.”

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Supporters in South Carolina are pushing for the passage of a hate crimes law, which would increase penalties for crimes motivated by race, gender, or sexual orientation. Despite strong support from businesses and survivors of a racist massacre in 2015, the bill has been stalled in the Senate for nearly a year. If not approved by early May, the bill will die. While the majority of Senators back the bill, a few conservative Republicans have been blocking debate on it. Opponents of the bill argue that many crimes are driven by hatred and express concerns about infringing on freedom of speech. South Carolina is one of only two states without a hate crimes law, and some local communities have taken action by passing their own ordinances. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed a hate crimes bill similar to the House version, with the addition of a clause protecting freedom of speech. Despite efforts to push the bill forward, it continues to face obstacles in the Senate.

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