This report is part of the “Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
INDIANAPOLIS – Pastor Ron Johnson has long played a role in conservative politics in Indiana. Three years ago, he stood behind Vice President Mike Pence as the then-Indiana governor signed a religious-freedom bill designed to offer legal remedies for people whose “exercise of religion has been substantially burdened.”
The legislation thrust Indiana into the national spotlight as local and national business leaders feared the law might be used to “justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.” In the week after Pence’s signing, lawmakers scrambled to enact a legislative fix declaring the religious-freedom law does not allow discrimination.
Since then, Johnson, pastor of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana, has opposed legislation in Indiana that would specifically criminalize targeted hate crimes, including those committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The state is one of only five – along with Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming – without a law specifically criminalizing hate crimes that target people by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristics.
“It’s a bad path for everybody,” Johnson said of the hate-crime legislation in an interview with News21. Last year, he created a video series titled “Why I Hate ‘Hate Crime’ Legislation” that was distributed online to a network of 500 pastors through Johnson’s Indiana Pastors Alliance.
Like other religious conservatives in the state, Johnson contends such legislation treats citizens unequally and could be used to criminalize his stated belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“Anybody who loves religious liberty and loves freedom of speech should hate hate-crime legislation,” he said.
Among the 45 states with such laws, provisions vary widely. Most designate race, religion and national origin as motivations for hate crimes. However, 13 states do not include sexual orientation, and 33 do not include gender identity. Laws in California, Iowa and West Virginia include political affiliation as a consideration in defining hate crimes. Other states have recently added designations for law enforcement, the homeless and disabled people.
Some state laws make it possible to charge someone specifically for committing a hate crime, while others provide for increased sentencing for those convicted of underlying crimes, such as murder, rape, assault or vandalism.
State Rep. Greg Porter, a Democrat, told News21 hate-crime laws are needed to give prosecutors the power to seek sentencing proportional to the nature of the offense.
“If a crime is committed against you because of your race, that's not just a crime against you,” Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said in an interview with News21 in Indianapolis. “That is a crime against the entire community.”
In Utah, where the law only prohibits crimes committed “with the intent to intimidate or terrorize another person,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he has never brought a successful hate-crime prosecution. It’s the only state whose statute does not list specific factors, such as race or religion, that might motivate a hate crime.
Gill said this has more than once put him in the uncomfortable position of explaining to victims why he may not be able to help them find justice.
“Justice should not be the accident of geography,” he said. “You should not say that I have a measure of justice because I happen to live on this side of a geographic boundary versus across the street.
“There is a justice being denied to a whole large section of our citizens in this day and age who deserve a better response from our elected officials and our elected representatives.”
In December 2014, Rusty Andrade, a gay man, was attacked when returning with a friend to his Salt Lake City apartment, which was across the street from a gay club. Andrade’s memory of that night is blurry. He just remembers sharing a goodbye hug with his friend, then, two strangers approaching.
“Do you want a problem, faggot?” the men yelled, according to court records, after Andrade, 37, asked them to leave the property. “Are you going to go home and suck each other’s d****?”
The men beat Andrade, an attorney, outside his apartment building. He remembers his friend’s screams, his head striking the ground and his skin tearing against the stucco wall.
Two Wyoming men were identified as the attackers after leaving a wallet behind. State and federal authorities investigated, but the FBI decided not to pursue the case. The state didn’t file misdemeanor assault charges until a year and a half after the attack. The two accused men fled to Wyoming, though the attack was never classified as a hate crime under Utah law.
Since then, Andrade has repeated his story to media and lawmakers, citing the lasting effects of the attack, including head trauma and PTSD. He has lobbied lawmakers to make Utah’s law stronger and more inclusive.