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(INDIANAPOLIS) – A hate crimes bill is on its way to the Senate floor, for the third time in four years.

A Senate committee voted 9-1 for a bill allowing judges to hand down longer sentences for crimes which target a specific group because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The bill wouldn’t create a new crime, but judges could look to biased motivations as a basis for issuing a sentence at the high end of the sentencing range.

Governor Holcomb has made the bill a priority — he says it’s the right thing to do, and he contends being one of five states without a law is giving the state a handicap in competing for workers and businesses. Executives from Anthem, Cummins, and Lilly testified the lack of a law has handicapped efforts to recruit top talent. Cummins chief administrative officer Marya Rose says some workers have requested transfers out of Indiana because they feel they’ve been targeted for harassment. The Colts, Pacers, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway joined business leaders in testifying for the bill — they say Indiana needs to show the world it’s a welcoming state, and get rid of what DePauw president Mark McCoy calls “an unnecessary stain on its reputation.”

Marian University Professor Pierre Atlas is a member of the Carmel synagogue where vandals painted a swastika last year. He says hate crimes deserve to be treated more harshly because they’re an attempt to intimidate an entire group, not just an individual victim.

Conservative pastors argued against the bill, claiming incorrectly it would criminalize their objections to homosexuality and gay marriage. The measure applies only to sentencing when a crime has already been committed.

Tea Party and social-conservative groups also argue the bill undermines equal protection to treat some crime victims differently. Terre Haute attorney Jim Bopp argues the Indiana Supreme Court has already ruled judges can point to racist motivations to justify a longer sentence — he says that makes the bill not only unnecessary, but a step backward, because it lists specific groups as potential targets. Crawfordsville Republican Phil Boots cast the only no vote after introducing an amendment which would have replaced the entire list with a general category of “bias.”

Michigan City Republican Mike Bohacek, the bill’s author, says some judges have been reluctant to rely on bias motivations at sentencing without an explicit state law, for fear of being overturned on appeal.

The full Senate could vote as early as Thursday.

(Photo: Eric Berman/WIBC)