COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House on Wednesday gave key approval to a bill that would make the state the 49th in the country to pass a law allowing harsher punishments for violent hate crimes.
But the vote sends the bill to a familiar junction where it has died before. Republicans in the Senate refused to hear it last year, even at the urging of a survivor of one of the most heinous racist crimes this century — the 2015 killing of nine black members of a Charleston church during a Bible study.
A number of House Republicans joined Democrats in the 84-31 vote Wednesday. Wyoming is the only other state in the U.S. without a hate crimes law.
The South Carolina bill is named for Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was pastor at Emanuel AME church in Charleston in June 2015 when a white man shot and killed him and eight others. The shooter was convicted of murder and federal hate crimes and sentenced to death.
The bill allows a judge to sentence offenders to up to an additional five years in prison if they are indicted and convicted on a state charge that their violent crime was motivated by hate against the victim's race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or physical or mental disability,
Several dozen violent crimes are included, ranging from murder and assault to arson, burglary and sexual exploitation of a minor. It does not include vandalism which had been in versions in previous years.
Supporters of the bill celebrated but acknowledged they may be about to hit the same roadblock as last year,
The bill made it all the way to the Senate floor in 2022, but Republican leadership refused to even have a debate. For months, pressure mounted. The state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups warned major companies might think twice about locating in a state whose legislature refuses to fight hate.
Just days before the measure died, Democratic senators showed a video on the floor of Emanuel AME survivor Polly Sheppard. The killer pointed a weapon at her, but said he would spare her so she could tell the world he had killed because of racial hatred.
“Eight members of the South Carolina Senate are giving a safe haven to hate," Shepard said of eight Republican senators blocking the bill in 2022. “Every time you look at senator Pinckney’s photograph, you should be reminded that hate killed him."
A portrait of Pinckney hangs in the Senate chamber.
Those Republican senators have given no indication if their minds have changed this year.
“We're hoping to change enough minds and hearts," House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
Repeatedly during a news conference after the bill's passage, Democratic House members urged people to call senators and tell them to pass the measure.
“This bill will tell the state and the world we are brothers in South Carolina. We stand for progress. We stand for unity,” said Democratic Rep. Wendell Gillard, who has pushed for the bill since the church shooting.
Republicans helped out their Democratic colleagues fighting off a number of proposed changes to the bill.
The most conservative House Republicans wanted to remove gender or add law enforcement officers or fetuses to the classes of people protected to the bill.
Republican Rep. John McCravy said leaving gender in the bill would allow a progressive court a door to dismantle efforts conservatives have made to pass bills curtailing what sports teams transgender people can play on or the bathrooms they use.
“The language in this bill could be used against the Save Women's Sports Act. It could be used against arguments about bathrooms,” McCravy said. "I think you see what the real agenda is here.”
In jest, some Republicans suggested some less serious changes. Republican Rep. Josiah Magnuson jokingly suggested making red heads like himself a protected class.
“Hey, let's load it up. Let's protect everybody,” Magnuson said.
Rep. Rob Harris stood up. “Do you know you are leaving out a class of people who don't have hair,” the bald Republican responded.