The issue of gay marriage and civil unions is back in the headlines in a big way today, with President Obama supporting same-sex marriage, North Carolina passing an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, and Colorado’s Legislature going into a special session over the issue.
The debate will soon come to Wyoming as well, as gay rights supporters in the state are currently drawing up a bill for next year’s legislative general session that would legalize civil unions.
And while a number of factors would all have to fall into place for such a bill to pass, its chances may be better than people think.
To many outsiders, rock-solid-conservative Wyoming probably seems to be one of the most unlikely states to move ahead on civil unions. The Legislature has the largest Republican majorities of any statehouse in the country (holding 76 of 90 seats), and there’s little support for changing the 120-year-old state law prohibiting same-sex marriage.
The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard has also given Wyoming a special infamy – deserved or not – when it comes to intolerance of sexual orientation.
At the same time, though, Wyoming also has a proud and strong libertarian streak – one that’s often shown itself when it comes to gay-marriage issues. Attempts to insert a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage have been rebuffed. Last year, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples who marry elsewhere can get divorced in Wyoming court.
Perhaps the big question now for civil unions in Wyoming is which of these philosophies will govern lawmakers’ votes: a determination to prevent the undermining of marriage, one of society’s key institutions, or an aversion to having government interfere in people’s lives.
Last year, a civil unions bill failed in a House committee by one vote. Governor Matt Mead has indicated his support for civil unions, at least in principle, calling it a civil rights issue.
Many legislators last year said they also supported civil unions in principle, but in the end several voted against the bill didn’t like the bill because the wording was too detailed and could lead to legal pitfalls in the future.
Members of Wyoming Equality are now trying to address those concerns and craft a bill that those swing legislators – those who oppose gay marriage but are open to civil unions – can support. It's unknown whether such a goal can be reached. Certainly, it will be an uphill battle.
Of course, the fate of a civil unions bill next year will hinge in large part on the results of this year’s legislative elections. Some opponents of gay marriage are retiring this year (such as state Rep. Lorraine Quarberg and House Speaker Ed Buchanan) or may have to run against each other because of redistricting (Owen Petersen and Alan Jaggi).
But several legislators who have voted against a gay marriage ban are also leaving, including state Reps. Pete Illoway and Del McOmie. State Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, one of the most outspoken supporters of gay marriage in the Wyoming House, also faces two GOP primary opponents.
And even if next year’s Legislature is more open to civil unions, there's a number of other barriers to surmount. Tom Lubnau and Tony Ross, the likely new Speaker of the House and Senate President, respectively, could block a vote on any civil unions bill or send it to an unsympathetic legislative committee where it would be sure to die. Lubnau opposes civil unions; Ross, meanwhile, voted in favor of last year's anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment but worked to carve out a civil unions exemption in it.
Another wild card is Gov. Mead: it remains to be seen what he'd do if a civil unions bill actually arrived at his desk, or whether he'd go to bat for any such legislation.
And family values groups, most notably WyWatch, will put their considerable resources and political clout to bear against any civil unions bill. Legislators are sure to be hear from constituents demanding their opposition as well.
About the only thing that is sure at this point is that as the debate over same-sex rights rages elsewhere, in Wyoming it’s now just the calm before the storm.