CHEYENNE — State Sen. Cale Case claimed Thursday that the battle over recognition of the civil rights of gay people is over.
“The people of Wyoming are ready for this,” the Lander Republican said. “This is not a big deal.”
He was referring to Senate File 131, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the Wyoming Senate wasn’t ready for the bill. It lost on a 13-17 roll call vote.
Meanwhile, the House this session defeated two bills that would have permitted same-sex marriages and same-sex domestic partnerships. The marriage bill never made it out of committee, and the partnerships bill died Wednesday after a lengthy debate on the House floor.
The floor debates in the House and Senate this week mark the first time, at least in recent decades, that pro-gay rights legislation has reached either floor.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said he was disappointed in Thursday’s Senate vote but said he expects the issue will come back. “Obviously, the country’s moving that direction,” said Rothfuss, the bill’s sponsor.
He noted getting the bills heard in both houses was a positive step. “It’s a necessary step to get it out there and get it discussed by the full body, and I’m hopeful in the future we’ll be able to get this group moved in that direction,” Rothfuss said.
Currently, he said, an employer can look someone in the eye and say, “You’re fired because you’re gay.”
The bill was amended to exempt religious organizations. But some senators said they were concerned the bill had unintended consequences.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said he believed most employers do not discriminate. Scott said he was concerned the bill created a “protected class.” Employers may fear a lawsuit if they fire a gay person for reasons unrelated to the employee’s sexual orientation.
The bill, Scott said, may have the effect of convincing employers not to hire gay people in the first place.
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said he also was concerned about the ramifications. In his job at Casper College he manages people and has had experience with cases such as Scott described, in which a gay employee was let go for performance reasons having nothing to do with sexual orientation.
Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, claimed the bill criminalizes employers who stick to their moral convictions.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, pointed out the bill didn’t extend benefits to gay people.
Large energy companies have anti-discrimination policies and the lack of a law in Wyoming, he said, could be a negative for companies that might relocate here.
Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, questioned whether there was a problem.
He said he has hired people who have a different sexual orientation.
“I’m a good old conservative boy,” Meier said. “I don’t discriminate against people.”
Sen. Leslie Nutting, R-Cheyenne, opposed the bill and said she has lost jobs and positions on boards because she is divorced. She said it would take volumes of laws to cover every situation where discrimination can take place.
Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, a supporter of the bill, said a number of people testified in committee or sent letters concerning their experiences with job discrimination.
“If you’re the person who loses your job, it’s a big problem,” Schiffer said. “It is out there.”
Rothfuss said the Department of Workforce Services receives many complaints about discrimination against gay people.
“Their response is ‘You have no protection.’” he said. “They have harrowing stories.”
The bill would affect some employers, “but that’s the point,” Rothfuss said.
“We’re trying to get rid of discrimination.”