Wyoming is widely regarded as one of the last states without a hate crime law, but that assertion is not as straightforward as one might think.
Groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, the U.S. Justice Department and the Matthew Shepard Foundation do not classify Wyoming as having a hate crime law. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wyoming argues that state does possess one.
So who is right? It depends on how you view a little known state law.
At the core of the debate is Wyoming statute 6-9-102, which holds that “No person shall be denied the right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness or the necessities of life because of race, color, sex, creed or national origin.” Violating the statute is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of six months, a fine of no more than $750, or both.
“The ACLU of Wyoming considers 6-9-101 and 102 to be Wyoming’s hate crime law,” said Antonio Serrano, the organization’s advocacy manager.
What Wyoming needs to do, he explained, is look beyond legislation and address the root of the issue.
“Public perceptions on Wyoming’s hate crime law is difficult to shift when some advocates are so convinced we do not have one. But that really misses the point altogether, unfortunately,” Serrano said in an email. “The question we should be asking is what Wyoming can and should do to address bias and hate, not whether or not we have a cookie-cutter hate crime law.”
So if there is a statute on the books that addresses “race, color, sex, creed [and] national origin,” why is Wyoming widely considered to lack a hate crime law? Some people consider the existing statute to be more of an “anti-discrimination” law than a true hate crime law.
Logan Casey, a senior policy researcher at the Movement Advancement Project, called 6-9-102 an “anti-discrimination section.” Rep. Pat Sweeney, a Casper Republican and one of the primary legislators pushing for hate crime reform, agreed.
“It actually functions as an anti-discrimination measure,” Sweeney said. “I don’t consider Wyoming to have a hate crime law, and I don’t want to be the last,” he later added. The other states widely considered to lack hate crime laws are Arkansas and South Carolina, according to the Department of Justice. But not everyone agrees on the subject. The Brennan Center contends that North Dakota and Indiana don’t possess one either.
According to federal figures, Wyoming has recorded 13 hate crimes since 2015. But many suspect that number is grossly underreported, as Wyoming law enforcement does not have a mandatory reporting requirement like agencies in many other states do.
There have been a number of hateful incidents in Wyoming of late.
Most recently, a transgender woman was beaten outside her apartment complex and called a slew of hateful names. Earlier this month, a magician decided to cancel her show after the community found out she was transgender and started threatening and criticizing her. It recently came to light that a bar in Cheyenne has sold a violent and homophobic shirt for a number of years. “In Wyoming we have a cure for AIDS,” it reads. “We shoot f—-in’ f———.”
And that was just in July.
Still, it would be incorrect to say Wyoming’s lawmakers are ignoring the matter. The Joint Judiciary Committee, for example, has been taking stabs at the issue, though without ultimate success. In this year’s legislative session, the House Judiciary Committee voted to table House Bill 218, which was viewed as full hate crime legislation. Instead of considering it in the session, lawmakers chose to push the discussion of the topic to the interim meetings that take place throughout 2021.
At its latest interim meeting in June, the Joint Judiciary Committee narrowly voted to draft two bills. One would require law enforcement to report hate crimes. The other would extend protections to more groups that aren’t currently included. The bill drafts will be presented at the committee’s next meeting in mid-September.
“I do not feel the committee fully realizes how other Americans continue to see Wyoming. And by not having some kind of a bias motivated crimes statute, it continues that perception,” committee co-chairman Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said following the June meeting.
There is an irony here. Wyoming was home to Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was murdered in 1998. In the aftermath of Shepard’s death, the federal hate crime law was named after him. But the Wyoming Legislature has yet to deliver its own law.
But Wyoming’s hate crime law (or lack thereof) is just one rung on the ladder.
“Addressing hate violence is vital, and hate crime laws serve an important purpose,” Casey said. “Like any law, hate crime laws alone won’t fix a problem as large as rising hate violence, which is why we need to improve our hate crime laws and engage in broader solutions to reducing hate in our country.”
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis