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South Carolina congressman renews push for state law against hate crimes

South Carolina Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard
Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-S.C.) told lawmakers Thursday that it brings “no pleasure” to discuss the issue of hate crimes every year. South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states without a hate crime statute.
(James Pollard / Associated Press)
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A Democratic lawmaker who called the late pastor of Emanuel AME Church a friend is continuing his push to make South Carolina the 49th state with a hate crime law.

After an avowed white supremacist murdered nine members of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the U.S. South in 2015, Rep. Wendell Gilliard revamped his pursuit of enhanced state penalties for hate crimes.

Before adjourning that summer, lawmakers provided a special session might allow them to stiffen punishments for crimes motivated by bias against particular groups. But no such proposal has become law.

The measure took its first steps this year when a House subcommittee unanimously advanced the bill Thursday. Gilliard told lawmakers that it brings “no pleasure” to discuss the issue every year. For Gilliard, the debate recalls memories of the attack on churchgoers he knew in the district where he was raised.

“It’s a weight to carry,” Gilliard told the Associated Press. “But you know you have to do it.”

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South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states without a hate crime statute.

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The proposal is named after Clementa C. Pinckney, the former state senator and pastor who died in the racist Charleston massacre. The bill would allow harsher punishments for perpetrators of violent crimes motivated by their perception of someone’s race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability. Additional fines of no more than $10,000 and up to five years’ imprisonment could be imposed for anyone convicted.

The House approved a similar bill two years ago with bipartisan support. But the endeavor stalled in the Senate at the behest of eight Republicans who blocked debate.

Some opponents have said a state law is unnecessary when a federal statute protects the listed groups. They point to the example of the Charleston shooter, who has sat on death row for six years after becoming the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime.

Gilliard said state laws are necessary amid a federal backlog. A July 2021 Department of Justice report found that U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 82% of hate crime suspects from 2005 to 2019.

While the mass shooting in Charleston has provided increased impetus, many hate crimes draw less attention. The existence of a state law, according to Gilliard, can determine whether police collect evidence for a hate crime.

“Without a hate crime law, we can’t keep records,” Gilliard said. “We don’t know where the hot spots are.”

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Recent FBI statistics show that South Carolina had 110 hate crimes in 2020 — nearly double the 57 instances reported the previous year.

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Others objected to the inclusion of gender and sexuality in previous bills. A House subcommittee axed protections for gay and transgender people in 2021 after a Republican leader said their inclusion would likely lead members of the majority party to withdraw support. Conservative opponents have said they fear a hate crime law could be used to prosecute Christians who speak out against gay marriage.

Gilliard said Thursday that he would not compromise on the inclusion of gender and sexuality as protected identities.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey had no comment Thursday on the likelihood that the upper chamber passes this year’s bill.

The state’s powerful business community threw its weight behind the 2021 effort. Industry leaders argued the lack of a hate crime law could hurt South Carolina’s recruitment and retention of businesses. Tyler Prescott, chief executive of the Upstate SC LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce, said the protections are the “right thing to do” and necessary for economic competitiveness.

Some major companies were back at the statehouse Thursday to support the legislation. Duke Energy, one of South Carolina’s largest employers, backed Gilliard’s bill.

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Other backers included the Charleston Jewish Federation. Brandon Fish, the group’s director of community relations, asked lawmakers to address the heightened impact of crimes motivated by hate.

“Spray painting a happy face on a playground is vandalism,” Fish said. “Spray painting a swastika on a synagogue is also vandalism, but the effect is different. It has the effect of scaring people — an entire community.”

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