Proposed transgender protection policies conflict with “the overwhelming main stream majority of Goshen County and Wyoming Citizens,” Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) wrote to the Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees before its vote on the measures last week.
The State Legislature has considered and rejected similar policies, she wrote in a memo to the trustees, and therefore the trustees don’t have the authority to offer such protections.
Using legal arguments that she told the trustees were researched by her attorney, Steinmetz wrote that approval of the proposed policies would exceed the scope of the board’s powers. The policies would conflict with state and federal law, because the Wyoming Legislature and the U.S. Congress have not recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in discrimination laws, Steinmetz wrote. A second memo listing existing anti-discrimination policies in the state and prepared by a Legislative Service Office attorney in 2017 also was attached to her correspondence.
Steinmetz declined to provide WyoFile with copies of the memos last week, or her reasons for opposing the policies, citing concern that her public statements would be used unfairly. Following a WyoFile article on the meeting, Eastern Wyoming College President Dr. Lesley Travers provided WyoFile with Steinmetz’s communications to the board.
The anti discrimination policies were abandoned by the board when a crowd estimated at between 120 and 190 individuals, including at least two GOP lawmakers, and the Wyoming Republican Party chairman, turned out to oppose them.
A University of Wyoming School of Law professor said Steinmetz’s argument discounts that institutions can go beyond what the law requires when protecting employees.
“Those laws tell you what you can’t do,” said Jacquelyn Bridgeman, referring to the fact that federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex and other characteristics. Bridgeman is an endowed professor of law and interim director of the School of Culture, Gender & Social Justice.
“[The laws] don’t necessarily tell you what you can do,” she said. “You can offer more protection than the law requires.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on labor discrimination, interprets federal law as forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It considers those characteristics protected by the prohibitions of sexual discrimination, according to its website.
Steinmetz argued the State Legislature has the prerogative to decide whether taxpayer entities, such as public community colleges, can write their own policies to protect LGBTQ people.
“By adding unrecognized, highly controversial classifications to governing policy, the EWC board of trustees is circumventing state law and process by which these policies are vetted, debated and either rejected or accepted by duly elected Legislative Representatives of the people of the State of Wyoming,” Steinmetz wrote.
She continued: “Issues of this magnitude, that have been extensively debated in both chambers of the State Legislature and consistently rejected, are not the proper subject of a mere handful of EWC trustees acting without the approval of the State Legislature.”
In 2015, the House narrowly killed a nondiscrimination bill that included gender identity and sexual orientation after it had passed the Senate. A similar bill in 2017 never made it out of the Senate.
Legislative rejections of statewide protections hasn’t prevented local entities from adopting such protections elsewhere. Community colleges and city governments have nondiscrimination policies in their employee handbooks that include sexual orientation and gender identity. Some city councils, meanwhile, also have passed nondiscrimination resolutions. Casper was the most recent example when it passed an anti-discrimination resolution in February.
Perhaps the strongest policy in the state is a nondiscrimination ordinance passed by Laramie’s city council in 2015. Unlike a resolution, the ordinance comes with specific penalties for anyone who discriminates based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
“We wouldn’t have [passed] it without the confidence that we could,” Laramie City Attorney Robert Southard said.
In the three years since passage, Southard said, the ordinance has not been challenged. No one has yet used the ordinance to report discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Southard said. It’s possible a challenge could come once someone is penalized under the ordinance, he said.
“You never know, I suppose, until the Wyoming Supreme Court says so,” Southard said.
Steinmetz also warned trustees the policies they were considering contradict the values Goshen County uses to promote itself to potential businesses and residents. The memo quoted a page on the Goshen County Economic Development website that proclaims “in Goshen County, old-fashioned values still reign.”
Allowing transgender employees to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender they identify with could violate privacy rights and open the school to potential litigation, Steinmetz wrote.
The new policies also could lead to an increase of sexual assault, she said. “The implementation of these policies would also likely materially cause an uptick in violations of Wyoming criminal law on campus such as sexual assault and criminal invasion of privacy (voyeurism),” the memo read.
LGBTQ and sexual assault prevention advocates both dispute that claim.
In 2016, national furor erupted over a North Carolina law that sought to prohibit people from using a bathroom that didn’t correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. At that time, more than 250 domestic violence and sexual assault prevention organizations endorsed a statement dismissing any link between transgender people using the facilities of their choice and an increase in sexual assault.
“As [professionals] who work each and every day to meet the needs of all survivors and reduce sexual assault and domestic violence throughout society,” the statement read, “we speak from experience and expertise when we state that these claims are false.”
Existing laws against sexual assault and violence are not cancelled out by policies allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, the statement said.
Steinmetz also cited the board’s governing philosophy in her memo, which notes the following: “The Board of Trustees connects the College to the community to ensure outcomes of the institution match the expectations of the community.”
After the board chose not to proceed with the rules following the public showing, Steinmetz told WyoFile the board had upheld that philosophy.
WyoFile did not receive a response from Steinmetz to emailed questions about the memo this week.