Naperville attorney's stance against hate crimes set to become state law

When an attack on a suburban house of worship struck too close to home for attorney Sadia Covert, she developed a three-step plan to help prevent hate crimes.

More than two years later, a bill she helped write has passed the state House and Senate and awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner's signature.

The bill's progress means Covert, 34, of Naperville, is nearly finished with the first step in her plan to amend and strengthen Illinois' hate crime legislation.

The bill she developed, along with state House sponsor Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego and state Senate sponsor Heather Steans of Chicago, will require diversity education for people convicted of hate crimes and allow victims to seek additional damages through civil court proceedings. It also will extend hate crimes protection to the exterior of religious buildings and remove a cap on restitution for victims of hate crimes that previously had been set at $1,000.

"Bringing the subject of hate crimes and the damage that it does to our community front and center and engaging in the dialogue is really important," Kifowit said.

Rauner's office said this week he intends to sign the bill once it officially reaches his desk.

"We cannot stay silent on hate," Rauner said in a written statement in March. "We cannot stay silent when families in our community are in danger."

Covert, an activist involved with the Islamic Center of Naperville, felt she couldn't stay silent in October 2014 when a man later found not guilty by reason of insanity vandalized the Etz Chaim synagogue in Lombard.

As she heard of violence and vandalism against Muslims across the country, she shaped an idea she calls "fight hate with ATE," which stands for amend, train and educate.

In March 2015, Covert hosted an anti-hate crimes educational symposium at Benedictine University in Lisle.

Then she started reaching out to lawmakers about flaws she saw in the state's hate crimes law.

A hate crime is defined as one committed because of a bias against someone in a Constitutionally-protected class because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ancestry, disability, physical or mental status, or national origin.

But Covert said the Illinois law prohibiting hate crimes was "not providing effective relief for victims and their families and doesn't have an educational component."

That's why, working with Kifowit and state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia of Aurora, Covert drafted legislation called HB2390 to help educate and rehabilitate those who are found guilty of hate crimes. In addition to mandated community service hours, perpetrators now will be required to enroll in an in-person course about the specific community or group their crime affected.

"When people have more understanding, they're less likely to hate or commit a crime," Covert said.

Kifowit said she envisions cultural nonprofit organizations will step up to offer diversity education.

"Sometimes people engage in hateful outbreaks against other minorities just because they might not understand or have a working knowledge of individuals' different genders, different religions, different mannerisms - just the differences between us," Kifowit said. "The educational component is very needed and a good alternative to sentencing alone."

Covert and Kifowit both said they hope the amendment to the hate crimes law will increase dialogue about preventing such offensive and violent acts. Further, they hope the dialogue will encourage victims to come forward and decrease the underreporting of hateful actions.

"It's key to effectively monitor hate and bigotry in Illinois so we can actually address it," Covert said.

Attorney Sadia Covert of Naperville hosted an educational symposium against hate crimes in March 2015, at Benedictine University in Lisle. She was spurred to act after an attack in October 2014 on a synagogue in Lombard by a man who later was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Courtesy of Sadia Covert
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