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Institutional Desecration Act gets Senate hearing

Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) chairs the Michigan Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
Rick Pluta
Michigan Public Radio Network
State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) chairs the Michigan Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Legislation to further penalize vandalism against places of worship, schools, and other cultural institutions received a hearing this week in the Michigan Senate.

The “Institutional Desecration Act” is part of a bill package meant to curb prejudice-related crime.

Package co-sponsor Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) says current state protections are outdated.

“These bills provide law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to seek justice and accountability for these heinous acts of violence,” Puri told the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee.

Under the legislation, destroying, damaging, or defacing a place because of its cultural identity or importance could bring misdemeanor or felony charges.

Punishments could span from up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine, to a 10-year sentence and a fine of up to three times the value of the property destroyed, depending on circumstances.

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said the bills are too subjective in terms of deciding what would count as a violation.

“It could be a comment, online or verbally, that not only could be criminally prosecuted, even though there was no intent, actual intent, it’s the perception of the perceiver that caused that intent, it’s the perception of the receiver that would cause that intent. They could also be sued,” Runestad said during Thursday’s hearing.

According to the legislation’s language, a person would be considered guilty if they “maliciously and intentionally” threaten, damage, or destroy a list of qualifying properties “because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental disability, age, ethnicity, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, regardless of the existence of any additional motivating factors.”

Another part of the package that would strengthen the state’s hate crime laws was not discussed at Thursday’s committee hearing..

Committee Chair Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said those bills will be considered soon.

“We thought it would be important to move ahead on the institutional desecration bills given all the work that’s been done on them. There is some additional work that is being done on the hate crimes bill but we didn’t want that to hold us up moving forward,” Chang said.

The total bill package passed the Michigan House of Representatives months ago, before lawmakers took their summer recess. In recent weeks, sponsors in the House have been renewing pressure to move the legislation forward in the Senate.

Chang said recent escalated violence between Israel and Hamas brought the issue to the forefront.