The Wyoming legislature voted down two bills this week that would have advanced the cause of LGBT advocates.
House Bill 168 sought to legalize domestic partnerships, but failed by a vote of 25 in favor and 34 opposed.
Senate File 131 proposed to make discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity illegal. That measure failed when 17 out of 30 senators voted against it.
LGBT advocates made no secret of their disappointment. But those who have followed the issue for decades also consider this week as a new high water mark for their efforts. Jason Marsden, director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said no pro-LGBT bill has had a debate on the floor of the Wyoming Capitol since 1999, when lawmakers killed a hate crimes bill. This week marked that first time that two such bills made it out of committee with bipartisan support, and ultimately earned more than 40 percent of the floor vote.
But that silver lining didn’t lessen the sting of defeat for young proponents. Several college-age interns shed tears in the House gallery after watching the domestic partnerships bill die.
Matt Jolley, a Worland High School senior who testified on the non-discrimination bill, said he was surprised at some of the anti-gay arguments he heard at the Capitol. “It’s crazy to hear what people think,” he said.
Last week Jolley waged a successful social media campaign to get his senior photo featuring a gay pride flag included in his school’s yearbook. A petition he posted on Change.org received more than 4,000 signatures from as far away as Argentina.
That broad, global support did not seem so evident when Jolley testified before about three-dozen people at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
About 10 LGBT advocates and 10 opponents addressed a committee of four senators regarding SF 131-Discrimination. (Another senator did not to attend but left a “no” vote.) The small gathering belied the weight of an issue that has occupied a significant place in public discourse for decades.
“The world is noticing that this somewhat unexpected thing is happening in this somewhat unexpected place,” Marsden said. “We have an opportunity here to hold to our (Equality) state motto and provide protection for people who really need it.”
On the opposite side of the debate was Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne). She and other opponents of the discrimination bill worried that the measure would intrude on the free speech of Christian organizations.
“This would be the only protected class that would clash against one of the other protected classes. It would hamper a religious freedom if we were to vote for this,” Hutchings said.
Others who testified said the law could lead to a shut down of Christian adoption agencies who refused service to same-sex couples.
Becky Vandeberghe of WyWatch Family Faction also argued that non-discrimination could impinge on free speech. “This bill would turn every Christian who stands on their religious principles into a criminal. Having biblical convictions should not be punished,” she said.
Miles Dahlby of the Wyoming Family Coalition worried that the bill would stifle discussion about the morality of sexuality. “Instead of squashing the ability to say, ‘I’m coming out’ or ‘Hey friend, I think there’s a better way,’ both of those ideas should be protected,” he said.
Responding to these criticisms, bill sponsors Sen. Chris Rothfuss and Rep. Cathy Connolly, both Democrats from Laramie, brought an amendment stating that nothing in the bill could be construed to limit speech of religious groups. The amendment also exempted religious organizations from parts of the bill relating to employment discrimination.
After the discrimination bill passed committee 4 to 1, it went to the Senate floor where several lawmakers argued it could enable gays to wage frivolous lawsuits against employers who fired them for reasons not relating to sexuality. The measure failed by 17 to 13.
Over the course of the week, opponents to the LGBT legislation used arguments distinguishing gay rights from other Civil Rights issues, on grounds that homosexuality is a choice, unlike race or gender. Others used arguments relating to the health and life expectancy of homosexuals.
Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) cited the Cameron study, which says the life expectancy of gay men is between 39 and 43. Critics say that the decades-old study reached its conclusions using an inaccurate sample population at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Despite the use of controversial rhetoric in both committee and floor debates, Wyoming lawmakers and the public conducted themselves in a civil manner. Wyoming Family Coalition lobbyists Miles Dahlby said he felt debate of the discrimination bill exemplified one of the highest ideals of America: “We are able to peacefully get together and talk over our differences and then live together with the results.”
But the civility Dahlby saw in the debate did not always carry over into citizens private email communications sent with legislators.
Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) said she received hate mail after testifying against domestic partnerships earlier this week. Hutchings is Black, and some of the mail contained racial slurs, misogynist terms, and references to slavery.
“When I testified the other day I didn’t mean to harm anybody. I meant to express my opinion,” Hutchings said of her opposition to the domestic partnerships bill. “I apologized to my colleagues that I might have offended because that wasn’t my intention.”
After the failure of the bills, the LGBT group Wyoming Equality sent out an email asking its members not to send hate-mail to legislators who opposed the measures, saying, “It will only make our job that much more difficult in two years.” Wyoming Equality urged members to write thank-you notes to lawmakers who supported the LGBT cause.— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He is based in Cheyenne during the 2013 legislative session. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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