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The first test of a new program that would allow state and local courts to decide whether to prosecute hate crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation was passed by the Michigan House with a 65-2 vote.

Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Battle Creek, said he had the amendment approved by the Judiciary Committee, meaning it will proceed to the House floor for consideration. It requires all crimes against sexual orientation to be prosecuted to the maximum extent possible under current law.

It’s the latest attempt to combat anti-gay bias in Michigan, and follows the introduction of the Safe Michigan Hate Crimes bill last year. Under the measure, any criminal action against someone based on their sexual orientation can be handled under existing state or federal law.

Johnson said he knew at the outset of this year’s legislative session that the issue of recognizing sexual orientation motivated hate offenses was a hot topic. He said it’s a matter of equality, fairness and safety for his constituents as well as the general public.

“This legislation could result in more victims of hate crimes being successfully prosecuted,” said Johnson, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2008 and rose to the Speaker’s job the same year.

The bill had already been amended to require that the offender and victim be of the same gender. This version also would have increased the maximum sentence from seven years in prison to 20 years.

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The Safe Michigan law, which was introduced last year by Rep. J.R. Coelho, R-Grand Ledge, would have required federal and state prosecutors to work together to determine whether there is an actual hate crime. It would have also created several new offenses to provide stronger punishment to perpetrators and also added an array of penalties for convictions.

The bill would have also expanded the definition of sexual orientation to include gender identity, and created a new offense for someone who advocates for or commits a hate crime. It would also have exempted people living in rural Michigan as a member of a Native American tribe and those serving on the front lines from prosecution where federal statutes apply.

Supporters argue the bill would strengthen the state by providing the ability for state and local prosecutors to work together without fear of having to turn a blind eye to federal and other laws. Opponents say the bill will lead to an unnecessarily broad definition of sexual orientation.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Zielinski, D-St. Clair Shores, cleared the House Judiciary Committee in an 11

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