Wyoming lawmakers have renewed efforts to pass an non-discrimination bill that would prevent businesses from firing employees because they are gay or transgender.
Senate File 115-Discrimination, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) would add workplace protections for gender identity and sexual orientation. A similar effort from Rothfuss failed in the 2013 session. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill on Tuesday, and the Senate will debate the bill this week.
Update: SF 115 passed first reading in the Senate on a voice vote Friday.
Should the bill pass, it would add sexual orientation and gender identity to non-discrimination clauses throughout Wyoming statute. Wyoming citizens who fit in those categories would be guaranteed the right to serve on juries, receive equal pay for equal work, attend schools, and partake in all public accommodations.
The bill makes a broad exception for religious employers like churches, mosques and synagogues that do ministerial work, which are already exempt under current Wyoming law. The exemption extends to non-profit religious corporations that provide social services like daycares, schools, food banks, and soup kitchens.
The bill has a significant amount of lobbying support from a new business coalition called Compete Wyoming. Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R), Susan Thomas, and former National Republican Committee Co-Chair Jan Larimer serve on the group’s board, along with many Wyoming business leaders.
Supporters of the bill include the legislative committee of the Wyoming Mining Association, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Wyoming Business Alliance, and others.
A second group called Protect Working Wyoming is also supporting the bill. That group is aligned with Wyoming Equality.
During testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, those who spoke in favor of the bill included a mother from a Mormon family and a University of Wyoming alumnus.
“Wyoming is not protecting my rights, when no matter how hard or how well I work, I can still be fired for something I can’t change about myself,” said Garrett Zans, a track athlete and honors student who graduated from the University of Wyoming.
Chesie Lee, lobbyist with the Wyoming Association of Churches, supported the bill.
“We ask that they be judged on the quality of their work and nothing else,” she said.
The Latter Day Saints Church last week held a press conference to express support for non-discrimination legislation in other states.
Wyoming law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, religion, color, sex, disability, pregnancy, or national origin.
Opponents of the bill argued that gays and lesbians are different from other protected classes.
Former Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) spoke against the bill, saying that gays, lesbians and transgender people can choose their identity. Hutchings and Cheyenne resident Mary Boud said these groups haven’t experienced the same kind of atrocities committed against African Americans under slavery.
“This is a class with a certain personality trait that nobody else really needs to know, and that is really not discriminated against in any great amount, and certainly not to the level that race or gender would be where they couldn’t vote,” Boud said.
Donna Adler, lobbyist with the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, made a similar case.
“I have heard no pressing testimony that people with gender and sexual identity have had the same kind of experience as the African Americans,” Adler said. “I object that so many groups are trying to glom onto that history as their own.”
During debate, Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) offered an amendment that would have added steps to the process of filing a workplace discrimination complaint. He also sought to widen the religious exemption to include religiously affiliated for-profit businesses.
Kinskey argued his amendment was needed to protect small business owners, and allow private for-profit businesses to discriminate. He drafted the amendment in order to make the bill comply with the United States Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision, he said. That decision extended religious exemptions from health care laws mandating employee insurance include contraceptive services in businesses like Hobby Lobby that are privately owned.
Kinskey later withdrew the part of the amendment dealing with the filing of complaints. Senate Judiciary Committee members voted down the for-profit part of his amendment 3-2.
Sens. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), Floyd Esquibel (D-Cheyenne) and Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) voted no on the amendment, while Kinskey and Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) voted yes.
Hicks was the only committee member who voted against sending the bill to the Senate floor.
Discrimination complaints in Wyoming
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services receives about 30 complaints a year from employees who claim to have faced workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Liz Brimmer of Compete Wyoming testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that one of the most serious incidents involved a gay employee who was stripped naked by coworkers and tied to the front of a truck, with the driver playing a game of “chicken.” In a separate incident, coworkers of a gay man repeatedly put human waste in his lunchbox and locker. In another case a manager was fired for being gay after her employer learned she had taken accrued time off to deal with a breakup with a same-sex partner.
The Department of Workplace Services has no grounds for pursuing investigations of such incidents, unless they fall into the conventional definition of sexual harassment.
“We see such horrible things,” said Cherie Doak, Deputy Administrator at the Department of Workforce Services. “People are horrible to each other at work.”
Should the bill pass, it would allow state investigation of claims for businesses with 2-14 employees. Some businesses may argue that fighting discrimination claims have the potential to rack up enough legal costs to destroy their business. Yet Doak, the state official who oversees that process, says she has never seen it happen during her 17 years in the job.
“We hear many employers tell us they are going to have to go out of business now, but we’ve never seen anyone do that,” Doak said. “I just haven’t seen that.”
Most cases are settled by instatement or reinstatement of the employee, back pay, or forward pay. The agency cannot order settlements, Doak said. Instead, the parties must negotiate settlements. Such cases rarely go to court.
The bill would raise Wyoming’s standards above what is explicitly protected on the federal level. Wyoming residents can currently make workplace discrimination claims to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but only in businesses with 15 employees or more. Sexual orientation and transgender identity aren’t specifically covered under federal discrimination laws. However, the commission can pursue such complaints as they relate to members of a certain sex, under an enforcement regime adopted in 2012.
Colorado and New Mexico are the only Rocky Mountain states to have statewide protecting sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Montana’s legislature rejected a similar bill on the issue last week, as did Idaho. Nebraska is considering a bill this week, and Utah also has a bill on the topic.
However, many local governments across the nation have enacted private employment protections for gender identity and sexual orientation. Wyoming is one of only nine states with no such state or local laws protecting sexual orientation, and one of 11 states with no similar protections for gender identity.
Dave Teubner, co-owner of Warehouse 21 marketing and branding agency, said his company already has a non-discrimination policy because it is good business.
“We ask you to maybe follow business’ lead on this one and join us in doing the right thing,” Teubner said.