CHEYENNE — Legislation banning recognition of out-of-state gay marriages was narrowly voted down Wednesday afternoon by the Wyoming Senate.
The defeat means it may be up to the Wyoming Supreme Court to resolve a conflict in state law about whether the state recognizes same-sex marriages from other states and countries.
By a 16-14 vote, senators rejected a last-minute compromise version of House Bill 74, ending weeks of heated debate and emotional arguments over the legislation from both sides of the issue.
Earlier in the day, the bill barely passed the Wyoming House 31-28.
Supporters of the legislation said it was needed to resolve a conflict in Wyoming law, which defines marriage as a contract “between a male and a female person” but also recognizes any valid marriage performed outside the state.
Last November, a Wyoming district court judge refused to grant a divorce to a lesbian couple from Lusk who married in Canada; the couple has appealed the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
But state Sens. John Hines, R-Gillette, and Bill Landen, R-Casper, who cast the deciding votes against HB74 on Wednesday, said they opposed it because it didn’t guarantee same-sex couples access to Wyoming courts to get a divorce or for other disputes.
Hines and Landen had joined a majority of senators last month in approving a version of HB74 that included such a guarantee for gay couples in out-of-state civil unions.
But the Wyoming House rejected the Senate’s version, and a compromise bill hammered out by a legislative conference committee earlier this week stripped out any reference to court access or civil unions.
Both Landen and Hines also said they thought the compromise bill wouldn’t do anything to protect the institution of marriage beyond what’s already in Wyoming law.
“It was one of these bills that we call ‘feel-good bills’ that doesn’t do anything,” Hines said.
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Pro-gay rights supporters in the halls of the State Capitol were visibly delighted after the Senate vote.
“We’re extremely excited,” said Jeran Artery of Wyoming Equality, the only statewide advocacy organization for gay and lesbian rights in Wyoming. “I guess we don’t have to change the name quite yet away from the Equality State. ... To me, this says that we’re happy to have people come to Wyoming irregardless of their sexual orientation.”
But Becky Vande-
berghe, president of WyWatch Family Action, a Wyoming-based family-values group that opposes gay marriage, also said she was “thrilled” by the vote.
With the bill scaled down to only involve same-sex marriage, she said, Wyoming residents now have a “clean voting record” that shows which legislators support traditional marriage and which don’t.
Legislative approval of HB74 would have been “just the icing on the cake,” Vandeberghe said. “But we got the cake, which is the voting record.”
Even so, Wednesday’s vote on HB74 marked the latest in series of late-session defeats for social conservatives, who had been heartened by last year’s election results. Wyoming Republicans enjoyed their largest legislative majorities in 90 years and swung the Legislature noticeably to the right on social issues.
Last week, lawmakers killed a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as well as legislation requiring abortion doctors to offer an ultrasound to their patients.
But Vandeberghe said it’s been the “best session we’ve ever had,” as their favored bills got farther in the Legislature than in past years.
Yet, state Sen. Curt Meier, the LaGrange Republican who sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, said he wasn’t surprised HB74 failed in the Senate.
“We’ll have to wait for another election, because everyone’s already seemed to have made up their minds,” he said.