HARTFORD — Democrats are pushing a bill to toughen the state’s hate crime law and expand the number of groups protected, saying a series of high-profile incidents shows the changes are needed.

The bill would make the commission of a hate crime a felony, increasing potential penalties that could come with a conviction. Currently, hate crimes are classified as a misdemeanor by the state.

It would also make violence and threats based on gender prosecutable as a hate crime and make threats against houses of worship or other religious facilities a more serious felony charge.

Democrats have pointed to several recent high-profile events, including threats against Jewish community centers around the state, but Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said during an appearance Tuesday on WNPR’s “Where we Live” that incidents as far back as gunshots fired at a South Meriden mosque in 2015 highlight the need for the bill.

Zahir Mannan, outreach director for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Connecticut at the Baitul Aman mosque in South Meriden, said the community supports efforts to toughen hate crime laws.

“It just shows more solidarity,” he said Tuesday, adding support from public officials, religious leaders of other faiths, and community leaders has helped the Ahmadiyya community broaden its reach to share its message of peace. “It certainly propels our peace-loving message into demographics that we cannot reach.”

Tong and other Democrats said during a press conference last week that a number of recent incidents show why the bill, which is before the Judiciary Committee, is needed.

Along with the threats to the Jewish Community Centers, they also referenced a swastika that was painted on a Danbury home in November and a racial slur painted onto the Stamford home of an interracial couple last month.

In the Stamford incident, the family refused to clean the word from their garage in protest of the police department’s inability to catch a suspect, saying it was not the first time their home was vandalized.

Tong said the U.S. has a “tragic experience with hate,” and referenced both slavery and the Japanese internment camps during World War II, but Democrats also said the bill is a response to actions and rhetoric nationally.

“In the current climate nationally, it’s unacceptable,” Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said.

The change to a felony means a conviction can carry up to five years in prison, up from the one-year maximum allowed under state statute for misdemeanors. For offenses that are raised to a Class C felony, the maximum prison sentence is 10 years.

The bill would make the November 2015 incident in which a neighbor fired gunshots at the Baitul Aman mosque in response to the Paris terrorist attack a Class C felony. Ted Hakey, who fired the shots, was prosecuted by federal authorities, not at the state level.

The hate crime legislation quickly became the subject of partisan bickering after Democrats took several shots at President Donald Trump and didn’t reach out to Republicans prior to their press conference last week.

“The best way to combat hate is to show unity,” Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven said in a statement last week. “That’s why it’s so disappointing that Connecticut Democrats from the beginning chose to turn a certainly bipartisan issue into a completely partisan press conference today. Instead of working with Republicans to show a united front against hate crimes in our state, Democrats chose political theater. Instead of making today about standing together, Democrats made it about standing apart. Divisiveness cannot fight hate.”

Adam Joseph, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, responded by questioning Republicans’ desire to address hate crimes. He pointed to Republican proposals to cut education funding to sanctuary cities, require women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds, among others, as indicators of his stance.

“Protecting people from hate crimes does not appear to be a priority for the Senate Republicans,” he said. “They should stop complaining and start working.”

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