News readers, journalists, and policy makers in Wyoming should know that Wyoming has a hate crimes law.
Not only do we have such a law on the books, it is more robust than at least one state (North Dakota) and essentially equivalent in scope or penalty to several others (e.g. West Virginia, Virginia and Michigan). Most importantly, Wyoming was the first state in the country to pass what is now considered a hate crimes law: We did it way back in 1957, ensuring public accommodations and guaranteeing the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the “necessities of life” to all based on race, color, sex, creed or national origin (WY Stat. § 6-9-101-102).
This likely comes as a surprise, as the public narrative — and much of the public reporting — has been that Wyoming must pass a hate crimes law because we are one of only a few states without one. And that by not having one, Wyoming sends the wrong signal to the outside world: that we are not welcoming of diverse populations.
But since we do have a hate crimes law, the issue is much more complex than simply putting a new statute in place.
For the upcoming interim, the Joint Judiciary Committee will study hate crimes reporting. According to the FBI, 57 Wyoming law enforcement agencies participate in the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and report statistics on hate crimes. Since 2015, only 13 hate crimes were reported. The figure is likely low and excruciatingly inaccurate, suggesting we should start with reporting as Wyoming considers new hate-crimes legislation, rather than passing yet another law addressing the same issue.
We should also take a hard look at the underlying gaps in the law that actually do exist. For example, Wyoming does not have comprehensive housing, employment or public accommodations protections for members of the LGBTQ-Two Spirit communities. Nor are mental, physical, or developmental disabilities included in Wyoming’s current hate crime statute. Moreover, House Bill 183-Anti-discrimination updates, which would have updated Wyoming’s employment discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, had only three sponsors and received no hearing in the House. That nearly five times as many legislators were willing to put their names on House Bill 218-Bias motivated crime — a largely symbolic measure — than on a bill closing the actual gaps in employment-protections law is a problem.
Wyoming is, no doubt, far from perfect in welcoming diverse populations. But to address, in particular, the legal and policy-based reasons will require deeper inquiry and, perhaps, stronger courage on the part of policy makers. The answer will not be as easy as passing a new hate crimes bill.