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Senate gives initial approval to hate crime, hairstyle bias bills

Sen. William C. ‘Will’ Smith, the new chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, is expected to bring a more progressive bent to the powerful committee than did his predecessor. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. William C. ‘Will’ Smith Jr., the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said, ‘It’s sad to have to protect people’s naturally occurring hairstyles.’ (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate could vote as early as Wednesday on bills that would ease the standard for proving a hate crime and expand Maryland civil rights law’s definition of “race” to include ethnic hairstyles.

On Tuesday, senators gave preliminary approval to legislation that would no longer require prosecutors to prove that hate for the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability was the sole motivation for a defendant’s criminal act against him or her. Instead, the prosecution would have to prove – still beyond a reasonable doubt – that the criminal act was motivated “in substantial part” by the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Senators also preliminarily approved a measure that would ban race discrimination based on “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles.” Senate Bill 531 would define a “protective hairstyle” as one “designed to protect the ends of the hair by decreasing tangling, shedding, and breakage, including braids, twists, and locks.”

The bill to link race and hairstyle bias is part of a national movement to end a tacit form of racial discrimination.

The legislation to amend the hate crime statute — Senate Bill 606 — was spurred by the May 2017 slaying of Richard Collins III, a black Army 2nd lieutenant, by Sean Urbanski, who is white, on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Urbanski was found guilty of first-degree murder last year and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His sentencing is scheduled for April 16.

But before the Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury deliberated, Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. dismissed a hate-crime charge against Urbanski. Hill ruled that prosecutors had not proved the slaying was motivated solely by Urbanski’s animus toward Collins’ race, as required by law.

Citing Hill’s ruling, Sen. Joanne C. Benson has sought to amend the law so that a hate crime need not be based solely on the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability but could be brought if the crime was motivated “in part” by any of these characteristics.

“We are seeking today to move forward on the right side of history … away from the poison of hatred,” Benson, D-Prince George’s, said this month in support of her measure. “Hate has no place in the great state of Maryland.”

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee concluded that Benson’s bill – the proposed “2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins III’s Law” – would sweep too broadly by including any crime in which animus played any part. The committee amended the legislation to allow a hate crime charge to be brought if the crime was motivated “in substantial part” by hate.

A similar measure to amend Maryland’s hate crimes law is pending in the House of Delegates. Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, is chief sponsor of House Bill 917.

Civil rights attorneys have long challenged corporate hairstyle policies — such as a requirement that hair be kept unbraided — as having a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. Such arguments of unintended or tacit racial bias have had mixed success in the courts in the absence of an express, statutory link between race and hairstyle, according to court records.

The same courtroom results have held true with regard to claims of housing and public accommodations bias, where courts have often held that while racial minorities are a protected class, hairstyle is not.

S.B. 531 would make clear that hairstyle is inseparable from race, said Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It’s sad to have to protect people’s naturally occurring hairstyles,” Smith, D-Montgomery, said this month in support of the measure. “(The bill) ensures that people with these hairstyles can wear their hair without conforming to Eurocentric styles.”

A similar bill is pending in the House of Delegates. Del. Stephanie Smith, D-Baltimore city, is chief sponsor of House Bill 1444.

California, New Jersey and New York have recently enacted such statutes, known as CROWN laws, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.

Montgomery County passed a CROWN ordinance last year. The law went into effect Feb. 6.

The issue of hairstyle bias came to the fore in December 2018, when a referee in New Jersey told a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. Last year, a high school student in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was told his dreadlocks violated the school’s dress code.


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