Anti-Hate Crime Legislation a Necessary Step Towards Freedoms of Speech, Assembly, and Religion

State Senator Jay Costa (D) and State Representative Dan Frankel (D).

As proud lifelong yinzers, we so deeply cherish the multicultural fabric that makes up Pittsburgh. People of so many backgrounds, faiths, races, and genders call our city home, and we are stronger for it.  

We were at separate events on October 27, 2018, when we learned that a shooter was rampaging through a Squirrel Hill building that housed three synagogues. Feeling deeply helpless, we gathered with others in the street a few blocks away and waited for what we knew was the worst of news. 

While many urban Jewish communities throughout the nation have spread out or migrated to suburbs, Squirrel Hill has held on and flourished. Part of its strength is the ideological diversity within. Even the three congregations that were attacked that day came from different Jewish religious movements, but all neighbors within one building. That’s Squirrel Hill – inclusive and diverse, but invested in shared community.  

While we waited in the soft rain that day, news began to trickle out and confirm everyone’s fears: an antisemitic attacker used a weapon of war to murder 11 people in their synagogues, and injure 6 more. Our hearts ached not only for the individuals we knew, but also for the neighborhood that we both grew up in and loved. 

Each and every person who calls Pittsburgh – or Pennsylvania, or America – home deserves the freedom to gather with the people we love and create community through song, dance, meditation, and art. We deserve safety we can feel, free from the threats of deadly violence ending the lives of our friends and families. No matter how we look, who we love, where we pray, or what neighborhood we call home, we deserve to feel protected in our communities.  

The rise of extremist groups and hate crimes are an existential threat to communities like Squirrel Hill, and individuals whose appearance, identity or disability could make them a target. As extremists foment hate and deal in racist, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric, our friends and neighbors feel less and less safe out in the world. 

The helplessness we felt that day turned to fuel for us both. We proudly championed the creation of the Nonprofit Security Grant so that funding was available to make community spaces and houses of worship safer from bad actors. Those grants have made our valued organizations safer across the commonwealth, but we know that’s not enough.  

It’s up to us to rebuild the sense of safety that is ripped away when hateful violence and terrifying headlines have Pennsylvanians wondering “is somebody going to hurt me next?”  

We must use every tool we have – civil penalties, police training, better reporting and education – to deter and address hate crimes.  

That’s why we are introducing anti-hate crimes legislative package, which would expand protections to cover the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, strengthen civil and criminal penalties, increase training for police and educators, encourage the reporting of hate-based incidents in schools and provide a mechanism by which those convicted of hate crimes perform community service or complete classes related to the motivating factor in the crime. 

By finally passing our bills, the General Assembly can help reclaim and advance our freedom to pray, gather, sing, and dance in safety and community. We must fight to ensure that our friends and neighbors are safe in their houses of worship, on their walks to work, in their schools, seeking care, and in their homes. 

The work before us is as overwhelming as it is urgent, but we believe that it must be done. We look forward to championing the freedoms we all treasure so dearly to ensure that all of us, of every race, faith, gender, sexuality, disability status, ZIP code, and nation of origin feels safe and welcome and safe in our communities.