CHEYENNE — The state’s top elected officials on Wednesday voted to ban public displays and demonstrations in the Herschler Gallery, the underground tunnel that connects the Wyoming Capitol to the Herschler Office Building.
The new policy, according to the Wyoming Building Commission, protects the tunnel’s function as a “protected and secure thoroughfare for foot traffic” between the two buildings.
It allows the public to use the first floor and basement of the Herschler Building for “expressions of points of view.”
The Building Commission includes Gov. Matt Mead, Secretary of State Max Maxfield, Auditor Cynthia Cloud, Treasurer Joe Meyer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
The commission adopted the policy on a 2-1 vote. Maxfield and Cloud voted for the new policy while Hill voted no. Mead didn’t have to vote since two other members already approved the policy. Meyer, who is recovering from cancer surgery, didn’t attend the meeting. Cloud voted by phone.
Hill said she voted against the policy because she was concerned about limiting free speech.
Maxfield said the policy is a fair solution “to what could turn into a very sticky problem when you decide who can and can’t display.”
WyWatch, a family values organization, filed a federal court lawsuit Jan. 3 that claims the state violated the group’s free speech rights by removing an anti-abortion display from the Herschler Gallery during the 2011 legislative session.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the state from blocking its display during the 2012 legislative session, which opens Feb. 13.
A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday before Chief Federal Judge Nancy Freudenthal on WyWatch’s petition for an injunction against the state.
WyWatch Chairwoman Becky Vandeberge of Cheyenne declined to comment Wednesday on the new policy, saying the organization’s attorneys are handling the issue.
Jonathan Skruggs is one of the attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed WyWatch’s lawsuit. He said Wednesday he couldn’t say how the state’s new policy would affect the lawsuit since he hasn’t seen the policy.
“The state has not filed anything in this lawsuit,” Skruggs said. “It is impossible to comment until we’ve seen actually what’s been done.”
“At this point, we have no reason to believe anything the state is offering is sufficient,” he said. “So given the information we have now, we will continue to pursue our motion and continue to seek to vindicate our client’s rights.”
Attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund had written the Wyoming attorney general’s office in April on behalf of WyWatch, objecting to the lack of a clear state policy on the exhibits.
The WyWatch lawsuit claims the state never responded to the Alliance Defense Fund letter and never repealed or changed its vague and ambiguous policy on displays in the gallery.
The letter included references to U.S. Supreme Court opinions dealing with First Amendment free speech rights.
State Rep. Amy Edmonds, R-Cheyenne, said the policy change is an overreaction to the few cases that raised complaints.
“That’s the area where groups who would like to at least have some access, get that access,” Edmonds said. “So it’s unfortunate.”
Edmonds added that the Herschler Building is not the same as the tunnel.
“We’re just getting them away from where they have access to elected officials,” she said. “That’s what I think is inappropriate.”
For years, various organizations, many with bills they supported before the Legislature, have gotten permission from the state to place exhibits at state-designated space in the large corridor that links the Capitol to the Herschler Building.
The legislators pass through the corridor to get to their cars in the Herschler Building’s underground garage.
The Capitol Club, an organization for legislative lobbyists, has a room off the tunnel between the Herschler Building and the Capitol.
Rich Cathcart is the state’s construction manager and serves as executive secretary to the Building Commission. He said Wednesday that the lobbyists are allowed to have a table outside the room for phone conversations. They can get cell phone coverage in the hallway but not in the club office, he said. However, the lobbyists are not supposed to lobby legislators who pass through on their way to and from the parking garage.
The WyWatch lawsuit claims Cathcart approved WyWatch Family Action’s request to put up a booth and display on Feb. 2, 2011, in support of two anti-abortion bills before the Legislature. He later had the display removed after receiving a number of phone calls objecting to the photo exhibit, the lawsuit states.
In an affidavit, Vandeberge said the exhibit was to include two anti-abortion signs erected on stand-alone, wooden platforms.
One sign showed a picture of an unborn baby in the womb with a Bible verse. The other sign showed a group of people with the caption, “We Regret Our Abortions,” and included the website for the “Silent No More” awareness campaign, Vandeberge’s affidavit said.
Vandeberge said her group was denied an opportunity to communicate to legislators its message about the harm abortions cause to unborn children and to the women carrying those children.
The Building Commission in an April meeting agreed to seek legal advice from the state attorney general’s office regarding regulation of lobbying activities in the Herschler Gallery.
During that April meeting, the commission heard complaints about noise and congestion in the Herschler Gallery caused by prayer groups and others.
Alliance Defense Fund is linked to a network of Christian attorneys who litigate strategic cases to preserve and reclaim constitutionally protected religious freedom, sanctity of life and the family, according to the group’s website.