Today, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, is a member of the Indiana House of Representatives.
But, in 1987, he was principal at Hamilton Heights High School.
“I decided to admit AIDS [patient] Ryan White […] and confront the bigots from around the country who raised their hateful heads concerning Ryan's admission to our public school,” said Cook.
White had been barred for a time from attending Western Middle School in Russiaville, and, after a protracted legal battle, his family moved to Cicero.
“Ryan and I both received threats for the actions we took at Hamilton Heights. We both turned in issues to the police during that time period,” said Cook.
Cook shared his unique perspective Tuesday at the Statehouse as a new coalition, Indiana Forward, launched its campaign to pass a hate crimes law in the state.
The group is made up of representatives from the business, nonprofit, advocacy, education, and faith communities. The campaign is a “united and bipartisan effort to pass a clear and comprehensive bias crimes law in the 2019 legislative session,” according to Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana.
“Bias crimes legislation we support would protect all Hoosiers, give our legal community a much-needed tool in its toolbox, and help Indiana better compete for talent and jobs by sending a message that we are just as interested in good quality of life as we are in good cost of living,” said Murtlow. “Our law must provide not special protections, but equal protections for all Hoosiers.”
[Editor's note: Members of the coalition and others use the terms “bias crime” and “hate crime” interchangeably, which according to the U.S. Department of Justice mean the same thing.]
Indiana—along with South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Georgia—is currently one of only five states in the country without such protections.
In an effort to remedy that, Cook has introduced House Bill 1020, which would makes it an aggravating circumstance during sentencing that the crime was committed with the intent to harm or intimidate an individual or a group of individuals because of certain perceived or actual characteristics.
“This bill provides clear guidelines,” he said. “The bias hate crimes bill punishes criminals, and action, not thought, or speech, or religious practice.”
Cook's legislation is not the only one making its way through the Statehouse. House Bill 1093, was filed last week by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon. However, the language in that bill is far more vague.
“Another bill filed in the House claims to do this without classes,” said Cook, alluding to HB 1093. “I'm not going to argue that here, but I do want to emphasize this bill is filed with clear delineation of what those classes are.”
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry added that HB 1093 would be open to legal challenges precisely because the wording was so vague.
At a minimum, the Indiana Forward campaign believes that any bias crimes law should clearly enumerate at least the following immutable characteristics: race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sex, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation, stated Murtlow.
Murtlow pointed to the support given by another prominent Republican, Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has also advocated for the inclusion of these characteristics.
Holcomb broke with his own party July 30, 2018 to call for Indiana to join the vast majority of other states in passing such a law.
“No law can stop evil, but we should be clear that our state stands with the victims and their voices will not be silenced,” he said. “I’ll be meeting with lawmakers, legal minds, corporate leaders, and citizens of all stripes who are seeking to find consensus on this issue so that, once and for all, we can move forward as a state.”
On Monday, Rep. Gregory W. Porter, D-Indianapolis, joined other members of the Indiana Congressional Black Caucus to call for hate crimes legislation in the state.
Porter has has been advocating for such a law for over 15 years.
“We're going to pass hate crimes legislation,” he said Tuesday. “We cannot continue to operate in this manner for any longer.”
Porter is the author of another hate crimes bill, House Bill 1159, which specifically lists the protected categories in dispute.
“There's going to be four, five, six, eight, or ten bills filed in terms of hate crimes legislation, but we only need one,” he said. “We need one that's on the right of bias crime legislation. Nothing with room to interpret. We need it in black and white.”
Also on Monday, the Indiana House Republican Caucus, led by House Speaker Brian Bosma, outlined their legislative agenda, which conspicuously did not include hate crimes legislation.
On Tuesday, Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said he was less sure than others on the stage that they would be successful this year.
“I've seen bills that have had a lot of support not make it through this General Assembly,” he said. “I have confidence that we're going to have a discussion, but until the people in leadership come forward and say, 'I want a bill,” I have apprehensions about what's going to happen. And I'm just being real with you. I might be one of the few legislators who believes that. And that could be my pessimism for working on this for several years. But, I will say this: You don't have to worry about me.”
Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, is another Republican who has thrown his support behind hate crimes legislation in the past and has done so once more. He cited the July 2018 attack on Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel in which a pair of spray-painted Nazi Party flags and Iron Crosses, along with burn marks, were discovered on the brick walls around the garbage bins outside the synagogue.
“I signed on to this legislation because it's morally the right thing to do,” he said.
Michael Huber, president and CEO of the Indy Chamber, said there were practical business reasons for passing hate crimes legislation if Indiana sought to continue to attract top recruits from other states.
“When we compete as a state, we win, especially on talent,” he said.