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Community pushes for South Carolina to pass hate crime bill

Lawmakers heard public input on the bill from several community leaders, including Sheriff Leon Lott.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina is one of only three states that does not have criminal penalties for hate crimes. Many lawmakers are hoping to change that with a new hate crime bill.

On Tuesday, a House subcommittee listened to community members as they spoke both for, and against the bill.  

One man while speaking in favor of it quoted Martin Luther King Jr. He said, "while the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless."

House Bill 3620 is modeled after Georgia’s hate crime law. It increases fines and jail time for crimes that are committed based on a victim’s race, religion, sex, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability.

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"We don’t have anything now that will hold someone responsible for committing a crime based on sex, etcetera," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.  

"For three weeks in Richland County, we had two individuals that terrorized our Hispanic community. In a three-week period of time, they robbed 27 Hispanics in 17 separate robberies," said the Sheriff.

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Lott said they caught the robbers, but they could only charge them for robbery, and not for targeting a Hispanic community, even though they have evidence.

"I urge you on behalf of law enforcement, on behalf of those victims, please do something. Please pass this bill, we need it," Lott pleaded to lawmakers on the subcommittee.

While several people spoke in favor of the bill, a few religious leaders worried it could harm their liberties.

"Without proper safe guards, hate crime enhancements open the door to the creation of laws that will chill and threaten religious liberty and stifle the first amendment," said Tony Beam with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Beam said under the bill, a preacher could be charged with a hate crime for reading certain passages of the bible.

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"We want to be sure there are protections for people of faith who can express their religious beliefs without animus or hatred toward anyone," said Beam.

However, lawmakers assured Beam that preaching doesn’t fall under the category of harassment, and therefor couldn’t possibly be charged as a hate crime.

The meeting Tuesday was solely for public input. The subcommittee will meet again later this week to vote on the bill.