CHEYENNE – A bipartisan bill filed Wednesday in the Legislature would require that gay people receive equal treatment at work, a stark contrast from a House measure that would allow people to deny services to LGBT people based on religious or moral convictions against homosexuality.
Wyoming Equality, the largest gay rights organization in Wyoming, describes the House measure as the most severe of all the so-called religious rights bills being considered in state legislatures across the country.
Senate File 153, the gay employment protection bill, is similar to a 2015 measure that passed the Wyoming Senate but failed in the House, except the legislation from two years ago was broader, providing protections for gays at school and other places.
“But this one has only the employment protection-specific provisions,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, a sponsor of the bill, which has Republicans and Democrats as co-sponsors.
House Bill 135, meanwhile, defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman – which is in opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court, which concluded marriage was a fundamental right in June 2015.
In Wyoming, gay marriage was declared a right by a federal judge in October 2014.
The Senate bill puts everyone in a protected class based on sexual orientation — heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual.
It adds to current state statute that no one can be discriminated against based on their gender identity or sexual orientation in wages. People cannot be hired, fired, demoted or promoted based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Employment laws currently protect people based on age, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, pregnancy and other identities.
HB135 is based on the premise that discrimination victims in society are not gays but people of faith and people with moral convictions against homosexuality.
A Star-Tribune reporter waited in the House lobby for over an hour Wednesday for HB135’s sponsor, Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, to answer questions about why the legislation is important. The newspaper sent messages to the lawmaker asking to talk, but she never appeared.
Another sponsor, Sen. Paul Barnard, R-Evanston, declined to comment specifically on the legislation.
“I’ve gotten enough baloney on it already,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s going to come out of the House.”
If the bill passes the House and proceeds to the Senate, Barnard said he’ll discuss the issue.
Sara Burlingame of Wyoming Equality describes the legislation as legalizing prejudice against gays.
The House bill would protect religious people from being punished at work if they refuse to serve gays. If they get in trouble for their religious or moral convictions, they can go to court and seek damages and attorneys’ fees.
Indeed, companies with gay nondiscrimination policies could be immediately challenged in court, Burlingame said.
Generally, when a person has a conflict with a policy or law, they progress through channels of resolution, such as meeting with corporate human resources staff, seeking a mediator to resolve differences, then resorting to litigation, Burlingame said.
“This bill says forget all that: Go to court, claim protection under this law,” she said.
Religious people and companies couldn’t face fines or tax penalties if they refuse to serve gays.
Wyoming Equality even interprets the bill as allowing firefighters or other first responders to not have to save people’s lives or fight fires if their religious or moral beliefs conflict with the victims’.
The state lacks legislation specifically protecting gays in work, housing and other areas of life.
Laramie has a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting the LGBTQ community, and that could be challenged. If HB135 passed, Burlingame said, it would be tough for the state to pass any other gay nondiscrimination laws, since under the religious bill, they could be challenged.
Only hospitals and medical facilities are exempted from some provisions of HB135, Burlingame said.
Burlingame said that various religions have different beliefs about homosexuality and how to treat gays. HB135 is a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause because it favors some beliefs over others, she said.
The Wyoming Association of Churches supports the Senate measure for gay workers.
It opposes the House bill – even though it would protect people of faith, said Chesie Lee, the group’s director.
“Freedom of religion is being used to discriminate against people,” Lee said. “It is wrong.”
Members of the Association of Churches include the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, Quakers, the Episcopal church, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
The Star-Tribune left a message with a deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne who has been involved in legislation at the Wyoming Legislature this year. He did not return the call.
In 2015, the diocese led the opposition that helped kill the gay anti-discrimination bill.
Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr said she doesn’t support the House bill.
The city has a nonbinding gay nondiscrimination resolution that wouldn’t be nullified by HB135. But to Orr, the bill would tarnish the image of Cheyenne as a welcoming community. She’s concerned it would send the wrong message to potential businesses with gay employees that are interested in expanding operations to Wyoming.
“It sends the wrong message: It’s anti-economic development. It’s really quite Stone Age,” she said. “I believe it sends the message that prejudice is OK. Cheyenne recently passed a nondiscrimination resolution. This flies in the face of that.”