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Michigan House votes to expand hate crimes to protect gay, disabled residents

michigan legistature
The Michigan House on Tuesday voted, mostly along party lines, to expand the state’s hate crimes statutes to protect gay, transgendered, disabled and older residents.
  • House approves bills aimed at hate crimes against gay, transgender, elderly and disabled residents
  • Democratic plan would update 1988 ethnic intimidation law
  • Republicans fear plan would criminalize free speech

LANSING — Michigan prosecutors would have new tools to fight hate crimes against gay, transgender, senior and disabled residents under legislation approved Tuesday by the Democratic-led state House. 

The bills, now heading to the Senate after 59-50 votes, would prohibit intimidation, harassment, threats or harm based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability or age — expanding an existing law banning "ethnic intimidation" based on race, religion, gender or national origin.

Sponsoring Rep. Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield, called his proposal an overdue update to the 1988 ethnic intimidation law, predicting the proposed changes would take Michigan from a “laggard” to a national leader for hate crime prevention, intervention and response. 

"As a proud Jew and a gay man, I will never sit idly by and watch as the communities I am part of face rising hate violence,” Arbit said in a floor speech prior to the vote on legislation he called a “central” part of his House campaign.

"Hate violence is different from other kinds of violence because it is terroristic in nature. There is never just one victim of a hate crime. An entire community is victimized too."

The votes came days after the FBI arrested a 19-year-old Michigan man on allegations of making of anti-Semitic threats and planning violence against a synagogue in East Lansing. Michigan police reported a total of 410 hate crime incidents in 2021, the most recent year data is available for, up from 377 in 2020.

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Most Republicans opposed the new legislation, arguing that it lacked clear definitions to protect free speech.

“This legislation allows police or prosecutors to decide what is a crime after the fact, or after the speech is spoken,” said Rep. Gina Johnsen, R-Lake Odessa. “Content-based speech regulation violates the U.S. Constitution, which everyone in this chamber swore to uphold.”

There was bipartisan support for a companion bill to create a class of hate crime for maliciously and intentionally destroying, defacing, vandalizing or otherwise threatening various institutions, including churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, libraries or museums.

Sponsor

That Democratic legislation passed the House in an 83-26 vote, with support from roughly half of all Republicans. 

The hate crime bills would generally maintain current penalties of up to two years in prison for violations. But the legislation would also create penalties of up to five years in prison if the hate crime results in bodily injury, is committed by a repeat offender, by an adult against a minor or involves a gun. 

The penalty for "institutional desecration" of a religious facility, school, library or museum would depend on the amount of damage caused, ranging from a misdemeanor of up to 93 days in jail to a felony of up to ten years in prison.

Under both bills, incarceration could be shortened or avoided if offenders voluntarily participated in a community service program "intended to enhance the offender's understanding of the impact of the offense upon the victim and the wider community."

The legislation would also allow hate crime victims to seek larger awards in civil lawsuits. Persons or institutions who are hurt or damaged could sue for up to $25,000, plus attorney fees, up from a maximum of $2,000 under current law. 

The new legislation is backed by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and a large coalition that includes various LGBTQ advocacy groups, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Disability Rights Michigan and AARP Michigan.

The Michigan Catholic Conference offered support for the bills to toughen rules against "institutional desecration."

Sponsor

In a Tuesday email newsletter, the conservative Rescue Michigan Coalition suggested the bills would create “thought crimes,” an argument echoed by several legislative Republicans. 

"The upshot here is that we are setting our citizens’ disagreements up to become criminal prosecutions," said state Rep. Andrew Fink, an attorney and Hillsdale County Republican. "...As it is written, the risk that disfavored opinions will become criminal under this legislation is too severe, and I cannot support it.”

Supporters of the expansion argued the legislation will not criminalize protected free speech and is needed because current laws can make it difficult for prosecutors to file criminal charges in Michigan. 

"In a free society, you are free to love, dislike, and even hate whoever you want — but you are not free to violate another's liberty because of it,” said Rep. Emily Dievendorf, a Lansing Democrat and former executive director of the Equality Michigan LGBTQ advocacy group. 

“This legislation will not instantly stop the ever-growing rise of hate crimes against our most vulnerable communities, but it will finally establish a standard for the safety and respect overdue to those Michiganders dehumanized, alienated and targeted for violence in our neighborhoods, institutions, places of worship and our schools.”

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