Ethnicity could be added to Virginia hate crimes, discrimination law

With the recent spike in reports of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bias, lawmakers will soon consider whether to add ethnicity to Virginia’s hate crimes and discrimination law.

Del. Dan Helmer, a Democrat representing Fairfax, introduced a bill — HB 18 — that would expand the groups protected against unlawful discrimination.

Virginia law already protects victims who are intentionally targeted because of their religion, as well as race, color, national origin, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status and disability.

Helmer’s bill would offer protection for Jewish people who may not identify with the religion, but whose heritage is connected to the culture.

In a statement announcing the bill, Helmer said as a Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the issue of antisemitism is “deeply personal.”

“My sons, like many other children, have faced antisemitism in school, and we must take substantive action to protect the Jewish community, as well as any individual targeted based on ethnicity, to secure everyone’s fundamental rights to self-expression and safety in our Commonwealth,” he said.

Nationwide, the Anti-Defamation League has said it’s recorded a significant spike in antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The Council on American-Islamic Relations — or CAIR — reports what it calls an “unprecedented” spike in complaints of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias.

CAIR has said religion and ethnicity can be conflated. People who are Sikh are often perceived as Muslim because of the turbans they wear.

Meredith Weisel, D.C. regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, expressed support for the legislation.

“Equipping law enforcement with effective tools to counter hate-motivated violence is critical to keeping our communities safe,” Weisel said in a statement. “This bill sends an important message of support to the Jewish community experiencing an alarming rise in antisemitism, and to communities experiencing other forms of hate.”

Under Virginia’s hate crime and discrimination law, a felony conviction carries a minimum sentence of confinement for six months, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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