SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah lawmakers want to get tough with a practice not often associated with the Beehive State -- cockfighting.
Senators voted 19-9 on Tuesday to increase the penalty for cockfighting from a misdemeanor to a felony. The measure now moves to the House.
Utah is one of only two states west of the Mississippi where the offense is not a felony. There has been only one court case dealing with the issue in the state in the past few years.
"Gambling is widely associated with cockfighting, and also associated with a lot of that is drug dealing," Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said of the activity.
He feared without the stiffer penalties called for in SB 52, Utah would become a magnet for gambling.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, led opposition to the new penalties. A day after he wondered why abortion is legal but a person could potentially go to prison under guidelines for the legislation, Christensen tried to amend the bill to reduce penalties from a felony to a class A misdemeanor. His amendment failed.
"I'm a little hesitant to use the 'a' word in my discussion ... But I think this is a little bit of a heavy penalty," Christensen said. "Should we put a man in prison if he does this? It's a matter of weighing one penalty against another."
In comments on the floor Monday, Christensen called cockfighting a natural event, adding, "yet we allow people to go ahead and murder their unborn babies."
He said owners raise game fowl for one purpose, and that is to fight.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, also said without making the offense a felony, law enforcement was worried more gambling would come to Utah. He said cockfighting in not an accidental activity, which may occur if a chicken gets loose.
"Part of the reason I am so supportive of the bill is because of law enforcement's fear that we will become a magnet for this activity. If we leave it as a class A, we are essentially inviting this to Utah."
The measure would make it a third-degree felony to own or train game fowl for fighting. That means up to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.