Hate-crimes legislation is emerging as a campaign issue between the Republican and Democratic party candidates running for District 59 state representative.

While Democrat Bob Pitman is calling for such legislation to be revived and passed in the 2017 General Assembly, incumbent Republican Milo Smith questions whether such measures are necessary.

A bill creating the state’s first hate-crime law was approved 34-16 in the Indiana Senate in February. However, the bill died during the session when the Indiana House failed to take action on it.

According to the Indiana State Police, 45 to 55 incidents per year have occurred since 2011 that would qualify as hate crimes under the legislation.

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The Senate bill would have allowed tougher sentences by taking into account a victim’s “perceived or actual race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry or sexual orientation.”

But judges in Indiana already have the authority to impose a longer sentence on a defendant if they determine hate was involved in the commission of a felony crime, Smith said.

Other Republicans have expressed concerns that such laws would help elevate one type of crime over others that could be equally brutal.

Nevertheless, supporters such as Pitman argue that hate crimes are premeditated and meant to intimidate entire communities, so courts need to be able to hand down harsher punishments.

Pitman, who won his party’s nomination during the May 3 primary, said the June 12 massacre of 49 victims in a gay Orlando nightclub illustrates the need for such legislation.

Noting that Indiana is one of just five states without such protections, Pitman described the Orlando massacre as a lethal combination of home-grown terrorism with hatred against the LGBT community.

But Smith pointed out that even though Florida passed hate-crime legislation regarding sexual orientation in 1991, it did nothing to stop the killings at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

“We live in a world that doesn’t think of the consequences,” Smith said.

In that sense, the incumbent Republican drew a comparison between the Orlando killings and the March 10 shooting death of Cummins Inc. supervisor Ward R. Edwards II of Columbus, gunned down inside the Cummins Technical Center in Seymour by subordinate Qing Chen, who then shot and killed himself.

But Pitman is also arguing there’s an economic downside to not passing hate-crimes legislation.

Indiana employers attempting to recruit skilled workers to Indiana are still burdened by an image of discrimination stemming from the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he said.

The approval of RFRA early last year resulted in Indiana becoming the center of a national firestorm. After opponents claimed the act would sanction discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the law was toned down after large employers such as Cummins and tourism officials spoke against it.

“Indiana must unequivocally declare that hate crimes of any kind will not be tolerated in our state,” Pitman said.

House Courts and Criminal Code Committee chairman Thomas Washburne, R-Evansville, told reporters there wasn’t enough time in the session for consideration. However, advocates for hate-crimes legislation noted the chairman had already voiced his opposition against the measure.

In addition, the House voted down another civil rights measure that would have protected people from being fired because they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, advocates said.

The proposal came as an amendment to another bill, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said adding the language to the existing bill was inappropriate.

In summary, Smith said he believes the law’s protection should be equally provided to all human beings, regardless of color, sexual orientation or religion.

“Nobody wants what took place in Orlando to happen to any group of people,” Smith said. “But we need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look at what we have on the books.”

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.