CHEYENNE – So concerned was Pastor Tim Moyer about an anti-discrimination bill for gay and transgender Wyomingites, he drove eight hours from Thayne to testify against it.
Moyer, who ministers at Emmanuel Bible Church of Star Valley, attended a legislative meeting wearing a white sticker on his shirt with the words “Wyoming Pastor’s Network,” along with dozens of others.
The network had a notable presence at the Legislature this year, after forming several years ago. Many of its members are registered as lobbyists. Moyer, a coordinator for the group, said to expect more action from his colleagues in coming years on social and family issues.
One of those issues will be another anti-discrimination bill. Senate File 115 was defeated on the House floor Tuesday, but its sponsor said supporters of the issue will be back next year with a similar bill.
SF115 would have added “sexual orientation or gender identity” to state laws that protect people at work and in other aspects of life based on their race, age, creed and other classes.
This year, the bill passed the Senate and a House committee before being defeated on the House floor, 33-26. Next year is a budget session, and legislative rules requires bills to receive a two-thirds vote to be assigned to a committee.
Proponents of the measure are disappointed by its defeat, but note that this year, the bill made more progress than in previous years that similar bills were introduced.
Others who want an anti-discrimination bill are making future plans that may not have Wyoming in them.
The Wyoming Pastor’s Network, Moyer said, has grown to encompass several hundreds of churches and every denomination, he said.
“You can’t get people who are more diametrically opposed theologically, but you can’t get people who are more in sync with these pro-family values bills," said James Baber, of Chugwater Valley Church. “We have found common ground.”
The group is interested in right-to-life and end-of-life issues. Moyer said their members will return to Cheyenne to fight gay rights, which they prefer to characterize as religious freedom or traditional family issues.
“We’ll have an ongoing presence,” said Moyer. “We hope to grow that presence.”
While the Wyoming Pastor’s Network celebrates the defeat of SF115, another bill that it supported failed.
House Bill 83, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, failed to win approval by a committee by a key legislative deadline. The bill would have allowed individuals to decline serving people they disagree with, including gays, based on religious grounds. Supporters of that bill characterized it as promoting freedom of conscience.
Another religious group, Wyoming Association of Churches, supported SF115 and never took a position on HB83.
Garrett Zans, 23, is finishing his first year as a master's student in electrical engineering at the University of Wyoming.
As a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Zans hoped the Wyoming Legislature would pass an anti-discrimination law. Without a law, he told members of a legislative committee, he may move away after graduation next year.
Since the vote, the Rock Springs native and a senior on UW's track and field team, has been thinking about his future.
"This weighs really heavily on my mind," he said. "It is unlikely I will stay in the state, largely because of this kind of problem."
There are several companies in Wyoming with internal policies that provide protections for LGBT workers. But for Zans, who wants to work in technology and prosthetics, the protections would end there. Restaurants could refuse to serve him. If he were to have a family, schools could refuse to admit his children.
If he wanted to grow professionally, his opportunities in Wyoming would be limited to companies with non-discrimination policies.
"There are certain factions within the House of Representatives who do not like anything involving what they think affects their rights as believers in some personal creed, even though that affects directly someone else," he said. "I've never understood the feelings of hating someone you don't know."
Five years ago, Andrew Israels-Swenson and his husband drove to Wyoming from their Morris, Minnesota, home. They visited Devils Tower, Cody and Yellowstone National Park. It has been one of their favorite vacations in their 20 years together, he said.
They loved Wyoming’s natural beauty and the nice people in the state. They didn’t make it too obvious they were a gay couple, he said.
“My husband and I had such an amazing time,” Israels-Swenson said. “We still talk about it. We still look at our pictures, five years later.”
But since the failure of SF115, they don’t know whether they take a planned vacation to Wyoming.
“We will seriously reconsider that,” Israels-Swenson said. “Not just because of the bill not passing, but the message and intent behind it.”
Israels-Swenson followed the debate in the Wyoming Legislature. He disagreed with lawmakers who said sexual orientation is a choice. He felt the message from lawmakers is that it is OK to discriminate against gay people. He doesn’t believe lawmakers are concerned enough about gay teens, who are often bullied.
“We live in a town with two stoplights, (and) they accept it,” Israels-Swenson. “We don’t put our lifestyle in anybody’s faces. But if we were out vacationing, and, God forbid, something happened, how would be treated? That is something we need to take into account.”
The couple would feel better if the state passed an anti-discrimination law. That way, medical and service industry professionals wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate, he said.
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, who spoke against SF115, said it is unfortunate that Israels-Swenson may not travel to Wyoming.
“I’d like him to reconsider because we don’t hate homosexuals here,” he said. “I don’t, personally, at all.”
Jennings doesn’t believe there will be much of an impact to state tourism now that the Legislature defeated SF115.
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, who also opposed SF115, said the conflict to him is how to reconcile gay lifestyles with religious convictions of those who believe it is wrong.
“Obviously, no one likes it when someone’s bullied or mistreated for any reason – whether it’s your race or gender or sexual orientation,” he said. “The problem with this bill is it makes criminals out of those with religions convictions. That was the main problem with the bill. It was something you couldn’t reconcile.”
In Gillette, Clem said there is a specialty food store that also serves as an evangelical outpost. The owners enjoy talking about God. They play Gospel tracks.
“Their idea is they want to honor God at their business,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything that would condone or promote any of the behaviors the Bible speaks about, whether that be the homosexual lifestyle or whether that be some other issue the Bible speaks against. Therefore, they want to hire the help that’s going to in their eyes promote the Gospel.”
SF115 sponsor Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the argument that individuals should be free to treat people they want is not new.
“This is the same debate as, say, 50 years ago with regard to racial discrimination, the fact that people at that point in time wanted to be free to discriminate based on race,” he said.
People are protected in the Constitution and state law to treat others as they want in their personal lives, he said.
“It is still right, but we draw lines,” he said. “And the country and the state have both recognized a line needs to be drawn and an individual’s right to discriminate does exist in certain instances, but we still put protections in statute for discrimination against people based on their race, their gender, their religious beliefs and other protected classes. This is not a new thing. This is not a new debate.”