Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, speaks with Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, during a Senate Floor session on Saturday. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, speaks with Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, during a Senate Floor session on Saturday. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Church, synagogue vandalism to be punishable as a felony in Alaska under passed bill

Members of the Alaska Senate approved a bill that would increase the penalties for damaging or defacing property owned by religious organizations and used for religious purposes on Saturday. It will return to the House for concurrence on changes made in Senate committees.

Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, carried the bill in the Senate and said this issue is significant in Alaska. He pointed to state data that shows 80% of hate crimes in Alaska were motivated by religious bias and the vast majority of those crimes were vandalism of property.

The crime of knowingly damaging a place of burial, worship or religious significance would be punishable as a class C felony, which are punishable by up to five years of prison time or up to $50,000 in fines.

“Vandalism of… typical property is not equivalent to vandalism to religious property,” Claman said. “Yet under current Alaska statute, there’s no distinction between the two.”

Sen. Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage, said he saw the need for the legislation and clarified its scope. “This additional criminal penalty will not apply if someone doesn’t know a property’s religious, or if it’s one of those ancillary buildings that is owned by a religious entity, but not part of this very narrow focus,” he said.

Members of the Senate passed the bill 17-2. Sens. David Wilson and Mike Shower, both R-Wasilla, said they wanted more time to tighten the bill before the vote came.

The Senate version of the bill makes some changes to the language overwhelmingly approved by the House in March. Bill sponsor Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said he saw no major obstacles to agreement from the House. He said he was involved in the changes, which he said are nuanced. “I think it’s going to do well,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any problem.”

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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