COLUMBIA (AP) - Some South Carolina lawmakers are optimistic the state will join nearly the rest of the country and pass a hate crimes bill.
The House Criminal Laws subcommittee voted Wednesday to advance a proposal that would make it a felony for someone to assault, intimidate or threaten a person because of their race, religion, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation or homelessness.
Under the bill, someone convicted of a hate crime would face a $2,000 to $10,000 fine and serve two to 15 years in prison.
South Carolina is one of four states without a hate crime statute. The South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus has made the legislation a priority and will push it until it passes, caucus Chairman Rep. Jerry Govan said.
"We are very happy that the bill finally has taken a great step forward," said Govan, a Democrat from Orangeburg. "We'll just have to see what happens at the next step. I think it is quite obvious that this is something that's needed."
Rep. Wendell Gilliard said hate crimes have always been a pressing issue in South Carolina, heightened after the racist killings of nine blacks by a white gunman during Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2015.
A hate crime law would help get people to talk about racial division, be more responsible and more respectful, said Gilliard, a Democrat from Charleston who wrote the bill.
"When you look at the history of South Carolina by the virtue of our state alone, we should have already had a hate crime bill," Gilliard said.
Subcommittee Chairman Republican Rep. Chris Murphy said the bill will be before the full House Judiciary Committee when lawmakers return in January for the second of their two-year legislative session. The North Charleston lawmaker said that will allow lawmakers to keep working on the bill.
Wednesday's vote was a big step forward for a bill that has seen little movement in the Legislature in previous years, Gilliard said.
"The way the government runs in the state of South Carolina, you have to be optimistic about anything you do," he said.
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