I come not to bury WyWatch, and I’m certainly not here to praise it. But it’s no longer alive and someone should say something.
One of the most conservative organizations in 21st century Wyoming shouldn’t just disappear without a trace. But there was no announcement of its demise; its website was simply suddenly shuttered, and all attempts to connect to it have been met for weeks with a 404 error message.
So I called Becky Vandeburghe, WyWatch founder and chairman, to see what was up.
“Is this an interview?” she asked with a suspicious tone.
“I just want to ask a question — why is your website offline?”
“Our organization is shut down because I’m moving out of state,” she replied, then hung up before I could ask another question. I immediately called back and left a voicemail, asking where she’s moving to and if there’s any chance somebody else will re-start the nonprofit organization she began in 2008.
I also sent her an email requesting a list of candidates WyWatch has endorsed this year.
I don’t expect a response to either query.
One of my joys during every election year has been to go to wywatch.net and look at its candidate survey. In case you’re not already familiar with WyWatch Family Action, it (was) an anti-abortion, anti-gay, Bible-thumping, gun-toting, homeschool-supporting, keep-transgendered-people-out-of-women’s restrooms group that had a rigid list of questions for candidates. They had to answer 100 percent in line with WyWatch’s positions to get its seal of approval.
In previous years candidates had to declare that abortion is murder in order to be endorsed. This year WyWatch posed two abortion questions, asking candidates if they would be “happy” to sponsor or co-sponsor and fully support bills that:
— Would ban abortions “where an unborn child is painfully ripped apart limb by limb by a dismemberment procedure.”
— Enhance the penalties for failure to report abortions performed in Wyoming.
Another question gauged candidates’ support for giving photographers, bakers, wedding planners and others the ability to refuse to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony in Wyoming. There were two queries about bills to protect women and children from anyone opening the doors of female restrooms “claiming to ‘feel’ like a female at that particular moment.”
I bookmarked the WyWatch questionnaire, knowing I could return anytime to check out which candidates the group endorsed. Oops — I never expected the website to close down forever. All information WyWatch disclosed about itself, including endorsements in previous years, is now unobtainable to the web-browsing public.
There’s no shortage of ultra-conservative groups in Wyoming. At least five are operating, including four political action committees: Right to Life PAC, Wyoming Family Coalition, Central Wyoming Conservative PAC, Conservative Women of Wyoming PAC and the Women of Wyoming PAC. But none has the high visibility that the WyWatch PAC maintained.
The damage done
Before its shutdown WyWatch had already played a role in two Wyoming political campaigns this year. The group endorsed and made a special effort on its website to promote the candidacy of Bo Biteman, who successfully challenged 14-year House veteran Rep. Rosie Berger of Big Horn in the GOP primary.
Berger, a popular legislator who had climbed steadily in the ranks of the Republican leadership, was set to be the new Speaker of the House before Biteman knocked her out of the race. He was also endorsed by the NRA and Right to Life of Wyoming.
WyWatch claimed that Berger was certainly no friend to conservatives, since she had voted against the group’s positions on “family values” issues 49 percent of the time during her seven House terms. If re-elected Berger would have been the first woman Speaker of the House in Wyoming since 1969.
In the state’s Republican congressional primary, an issue WyWatch raised in 2011 was suddenly resurrected by the Susan B. Anthony List. That national anti-abortion group endorsed Liz Cheney and noted that one of her opponents, state Sen. Leland Christensen of Alta, cast the key vote to kill an anti-abortion bill that mandated that a physician had to tell a patient seeking an abortion that an ultrasound was available, as well as offering a chance to hear the fetus’ heartbeat.
WyWatch had loudly rebuked Christensen and ridiculously claimed he is really a pro-choice liberal — a charge the Susan B. Anthony List was happy to revive five years later to promote Cheney’s candidacy. Christensen said while he is against abortion, he saw the anti-abortion bill as government intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship. He compared his opposition to the bill to similar intrusion into such relationships under the Affordable Care Act.
In 2013 the Canadian blog “Religious Tolerance” pegged WyWatch perfectly when it wrote that the group “views their battle to prevent any form of recognition of loving, committed same-sex couples as a spiritual one against the dark evil forces of Satan.”
WyWatch was never afraid to mix politics and religion; in fact it thrived on promoting the combination. “We humbly ask for your prayers. For we do not fight against flesh and blood alone,” its Legislative Action webpage stated. “We must remember the important spiritual battle that takes place every day at the state capitol. If you can attend committee hearings or floor debates and simply pray, it will be very appreciated by many of the believers who work hard to guard faith, family and freedom in Wyoming.”
WyWatch claimed its greatest victory in 2011 when it won a surprising free speech case it filed in federal court. It was surprising because this time the group was actually defending the right side of an issue.
During the legislative session five years ago, the State Building Commission approved WyWatch’s request for “walk by” space in the Herschler Gallery, a long and wide enclosed tunnel that joined the State Capitol Building and the Herschler State Office Building. Becky Vandeburghe erected two signs in the gallery — one depicting a “living preborn baby” in the womb with a Bible verse, and another sign showing a picture of a group of individuals with the caption “We Regret Our Abortions.” WyWatch was advocating the passage of two anti-abortion bills.
After receiving what were described as many “inflamed calls” about the display, the State Building Commission declared the signs unacceptable and removed them. Its director, former Democratic state lawmaker Rich Cathcart, said the content fell outside the “generic stuff” that he claimed was allowed. The application process, though, never specified any limitation on the material that could be displayed.
Like many observers I found the WyWatch display objectionable. But the Constitution didn’t say we all have a fundamental right to free speech as long as it doesn’t offend anyone. It was obvious that the state had a losing argument, so it settled with WyWatch. The group received $1 in damages and the state paid its $30,000 in legal fees.
Unfortunately, despite the settlement free speech didn’t ultimately prevail. The state made the horrible choice to prohibit the public from displaying any material in the gallery. At the time Vandeburghe said WyWatch was pleased that the state realized that it infringed on the group’s constitutionally protected freedom of speech and religion, and that its previous policy was unconstitutional.
She poignantly added, “It’s sad that it took such drastic measures to bring that about, but it’s even sadder that state officials decided to address the problem by stifling more free speech, not less.”
I was wrong — I did find one thing to praise about WyWatch. I disagreed with all of its far-right positions and cringed when I thought about how Republican candidates who desperately wanted its endorsement were willing to make astounding pledges, including doing everything in their power to keep transgendered people from using public restrooms.
I can’t forgive WyWatch’s condemnation of gays, nor its complete refusal to even make exceptions about abortions for victims of rape and incest. Both represent absolutely heartless behavior.
But I give the group credit for being willing to fight state government for an obvious violation of free speech. It’s increasingly rare, but sometimes Wyoming’s progressives and conservatives can find common ground after all.