Pa. House committee passes package to expand definition of Ethnic Intimidation

The bill expands protections to the state’s LGBTQ+ and disabled residents

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, speaks at a joint session to honor the Tree of Life victims. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)

by DaniRae Renno

A long-sought update to Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Statute cleared a critical committee hurdle in the state House on Wednesday, as lawmakers approved a suite of bills expanding its protections to the state’s LGBTQ+ and disabled residents.

The House Judiciary Committee passed four bills sponsored by Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, and Rep. Napoleon J. Nelson, D-Montgomery, along party lines on Wednesday.

Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Statute currently makes it a criminal offense to commit an act of intimidation, such as property destruction, arson and other criminal mischief, based on a person’s race, color, religion or national origin. Majority Democrats in the House have been moving a package of legislation to update the statute to include LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals.

“I feel strongly that our state must acknowledge vulnerability of targeted groups and send a message to those who would harm them,” Frankel said. 

House Bill 1027 updates Pennsylvania’s current Ethnic Intimidation Law law to include “ethnicity, ancestry, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or disability of an individual or group of individuals” along with the current “race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, expressed reservations, saying the bill could “criminalize thought itself.” Schemel said he is concerned about subjectivity in hate crimes, and the inability of a judge or jury to determine individuals’ internal thoughts.

“If you have a religious belief that does not include gay marriage, for example, are you hateful of gay people?” Schemel said. “You actually might love gay people and want the best for them and understand and recognize their dignity, but you could be considered to be hateful of those individuals.” 

While the bill states that nothing in it may be construed to “prohibit, limit, or punish religiously motivated speech or conduct” under the U.S Constitution or the Pa. Religious Freedom Protection Act, it does not provide any additional concrete protections on religion.

Frankel, who represents Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, recalled the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, which houses three congregations, in 2018 and the upcoming trial of the accused shooter, still in jury selection. He said that there is often concrete evidence in hate crimes that the perpetrator’s actions were taken with malicious intent to marginalized groups.

Frankel noted that the package creates no new crimes and invokes no new criminal penalties, 

House Bill 1024 amends the Ethnic Intimidation Law to require the Pennsylvania State Police to develop biennial training on hate-based intimidation and present it to officers. 

Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, noted that while the package helps to provide relief to victims of hate crimes, he hopes future bills will address structural violence, in which social structures oppress minority groups and cause generational harm. 

“We should collectively focus on structural violence and hatred that has been cultivated by the very institutions that have been asked to address this legislation,” Rabb said. “To me that should be the priority. I will be a yes vote on these bills, but I have considerable reservations and concerns about how we attack hate.”

The package included House Bill 1025, which would update the definition of hate-based intimidation in the youth violence prevention program database, Safe2Say. 

House Bill 1026 updates sentencing guidelines for hate-based intimidation, requiring offenders to complete educational instruction or community service to benefit the community against which bias was shown. 

The panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Rob Kauffman, of Franklin County, who voted no on the bills, said that they could cause truly hateful perpetrators to be overlooked. 

“I can say from experience that when I’ve expressed policy positions that have no bearing in hate, but in potentially values of one sort or another, I’ve been very boldly accused of hate,” Kauffman said. “My concern is that this kind of legislation will lead to harassment of real and justifiable speech, thought, of communication, of potential prosecution because it’s very subjective and very frankly, will drive those who are truly hateful underground.

The package, which Frankel summed up as “modernized legal framework for hate crimes,” will now move to the House floor for further debate. 

DaniRae Renno is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association. This article first appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

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