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Religious Leaders Gather at Statehouse for 'Moment of Action' on Hate Crimes

However, other faith-based groups in the state aren't on board with protected classes

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Moment of Action at Statehouse

Religious leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu communities gathered Thursday at the Statehouse for a "Moment of Action" in support of Senate Bill 12, the hate crimes bill. Indiana Forward, which organized the event, is pushing for a version of the bill which includes protected classes.

It was a familiar call to observers of this year's legislative session, but for those who attended the Moment of Action event presented by Indiana Forward on Thursday morning, it was tinged with fresh hurt and anger.

On March 15, 50 people were killed and 50 more were injured by a self-described white supremacist in a pair of attacks on Muslims attending Friday Prayer at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In response, leaders from several different religious communities in Indiana gathered at the Statehouse in support of a hate crimes bill which includes protected classes. The current version of Senate Bill 12 does not.

Indiana Forward has been on the forefront of pushing for comprehensive hate crimes legislation. The group is made up of representatives from the business, nonprofit, advocacy, education, and faith communities.

But, despite this response from many corners of the state's religious communities, the fight to achieve Indiana Forward's goals has become increasingly challenging in the past few weeks.

The saga of Senate Bill 12

Indiana — along with South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming and Georgia — is just one of five without a hate crimes law on the books.

“Ninety percent of America has enacted the hate crimes law,” said Dr. Anita Gupta, of the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana, on Thursday. “Indiana still lags behind in such a simple matter. It is simple, and it speaks volumes. We say we work for the next generation to improve their lives, yet we do not feel safe today. Why would our children feel safe in the future?”

On Feb. 18, supporters cheered as the Public Policy Committee met in the Indiana Senate chambers and voted 9 to 1 to send Senate Bill 12 to the Senate for a vote. The bill was co-authored by Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, and Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, and would cover individuals targeted for their “perceived or actual color, creed, disability, age, national origin, ancestry, race, religion, gender identity, sex, or sexual orientation.”

On Feb. 19, that version of the bill which included protected classes was radically altered by a vote of 33 to 16 after an amendment was introduced by Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, which replaced that language with the word “bias.” Before the final vote was taken, members of the Republican supermajority huddled in chambers, out of view of the public.

On Feb. 21, a final 39 to 10 vote approving the stripped-down language was taken, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The bill has now been assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee.

Muslims speak out

At Thursday's event, Rima Shahid, executive director of Women4Change, mentioned both the tragedy in Christchurch and the Feb. 16 road rage murder of Mustafa Ayoubi in the 3900 block of Wind Drift Drive East.

“Hate crimes are a malignancy that persist universally,” she said. “The United States is no exception. Indiana is no exception.”

Shahid also referenced the common refrain of “thoughts and prayers” offered without follow-up in the wake of such incidents.

“What will it take?” she said. “We've got you covered in thoughts and prayers, now you take action.”

Imam Michael Saahir just retired from the Indianapolis Fire Department in 2017 after 38 years of service. He said when he would arrive at the scene of fires and automobile accidents on the job, he wouldn't ask the victims what their demographics were before helping them. He said lawmakers should respond the same way when it comes to hate crimes.

“Indiana is home to a diverse group,” he said. “We're not going anywhere. We pay taxes like everybody else. We have husbands and wives and children who want to go to the store or go to school and wear a [kufi], or a turban like my brother here, or a hijab like the sisters, or a yarmulke like my Jewish brothers and sisters, and not have someone feel that those in power have given them a silent license to hurt them just because they look different, think different, walk different, or talk different. We can't have that in Indiana.”

Christians speak out

Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis and Southern Indiana, mentioned the attacks in Christchurch, as well as the Oct. 27, 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which left 11 dead and seven more injured; and the June 7, 2015 attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine dead and one injured.

“We would all rather prevent hate crimes than lament them, but that is difficult to do if our laws do not even acknowledge they exist,” she said. “Like so many of you I am bone weary of laments, tired of lamenting. I long to raise my voice in thanksgiving for a just law that will help save the lives and ensure the dignity of our fellow Hoosiers.”

Pastor John Girton, of Christ Missionary Baptist Church, mentioned the last 15 years of fruitless efforts to get legislators to pass a hate crimes bill before calling for them to “ no longer hide behind the dark veil of complicity.”

“Now, I'm not asking any more,” he said, his voice echoing through the rotunda. “Today I'm acknowledging that it is no longer feasible to be politically correct. They have shown us for 15 years that negotiation is not an option. All debates ended when nearly 100 people were murdered or injured in Christchurch at the hands of a self-proclaimed white nationalist. How can an entire world recognize hate motivated crime, yet Indiana legislators still disregard these cowardly hate-filled acts as just like any other crime?”

Rev. Nick Cable, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, said he had chosen Indiana to raise his family, but it was getting harder and harder to explain his decision to out-of-state relatives and friends.

“I've lived in five different Midwestern states, and I know Indiana loves basketball, but you are getting dunked on and dunked on and dunked on in this area,” he said. “It's embarrassing in the competitive Midwest, but it's also embarrassing when it comes to business, when it comes to people wanting to move here. … Our work will not cease with legislation that comes this year, or comes next year or years to come, it will continue and continue until Indiana truly is that wonderful place where people come together at the crossroads of America and truly are a beacon of what the United States can yet still be.”

Bishop Douglas Sparks, of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, pointed to a recent survey by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which counted 24 hate groups in the state.

“Anyone who is serving in our legislature who doesn't believe that crimes are committed against vulnerable people because they are different from us needs to wake up,” he said.

Carolyn Higginbotham, of Central Christian Church, mentioned the attacks in Christchurch and the murder of Ayoubi, but she also listed the July 28, 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. On Aug. 16, 2018, authorities announced Nolan Brewer, 20, Cloverdale, was charged in federal court on criminal complaint with conspiracy to violate civil rights.

“We believe that thoughts and prayers are insufficient,” she said. “We believe in prayer and we do a lot of praying, but we understand prayers have to be embodied in action.”

Sikhs speak out

K.P. Singh, of the Sikh community, opened his remarks by referencing his turban, which is traditional for Sikhs.

“I know my friend mentioned about being Black is already a license for greater trouble,” he said. “Add to that a turban and a beard.”

At least in part because of their appearance, Sikhs have been singled out for abuse, Singh said. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that since Sept. 11, 2001, over 800 bias incidents against Sikh, Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans have been recorded, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“We are all children of one creator God blessed with the same driving spirit, light, hopes, dreams and prospects to excel to be the best we can,” he said. “If this trend continues, we can see the cycle of violence continuing and accelerating if we don't stop it and end it and check it.”

Jews speak out

Rabbi Brett Krichiver, of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, noted Thursday's event was taking place during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

“It is both a privilege, an honor, and also deeply depressing to be with you again here today,” he said.

Krichiver said Purim celebrates the story in the Book of Esther in which a high-ranking Persian official, Haman, planned to kill all the Jews, but was stopped by Mordecai and Esther.

“If we do not stand on the right side of history today and ensure protections of all people who are marginalized, targeted and often persecuted, help will come from some other place,” he said. “But, isn't it possible that we, all of us, have attained our positions of privilege and power and influence for exactly this occasion, for this moment in time?”

Rabbi Shelley Goldman, of Congregation Beth El Zedeck, said a comprehensive hate crimes bill would protect her and her family in multiple ways.

“I stand here today as a queer woman married to butch partner and raising a black child,” she said. “I stand here at the intersection of multiple identities that would all benefit from a hate crimes law, and especially one that includes protections for people who are targeted because of their sexual orientation, or as we say, because of who they love or their gender identity.”

She also mentioned Purim, and said she felt a kinship with one of the main protagonists of the story.

“I humbly submit that today I play the part of Esther by standing in the halls of power in this state of Indiana to request, to petition, to demand, to ask that the legislators here in our state pass an anti-bias bill that truly honors the fact that all people are created in the image of God,” she said.

Not everyone agrees

While Thursday's event sent a message of unity to lawmakers, not every faith-based group in the state was on the same page.

One of those organizations, the American Family Institute of Indiana, has been on the forefront of fighting the inclusion of protected classes in SB 12.

“Indiana has been in the middle of a liberal smear campaign for allegedly not having a 'hate' or 'bias' crime law,” the group told members in a post Feb. 8. “Don’t let the media or liberal special interests drive our public policy. Contact your State Senator and tell him that a 'hate crime' bill is not needed.”

The Indiana Family Institute has also been one of the groups pushing against such a law this session.

“Giving victims greater justice is a noble goal,” the group stated. “However, hate crimes legislation would pick and choose who gets greater justice and who doesn’t based on political priorities. This undercuts the foundational principle of equal justice under law and politicizes the criminal justice system. When Hoosiers are the victims of a crime in Indiana they shouldn’t get less justice because they don’t fit into a particular class based on the whims of special interest groups.”

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