CHEYENNE -- The Wyoming House defeated a bill Tuesday that would have extended protections in the workplace, in schools and other aspects of life to gay and transgender people.
The defeat is a blow to the gay civil rights movement that was bolstered by an October court ruling that allowed same-sex couples to marry in Wyoming.
Senate File 115 failed, with 33 opposing it, 26 supporting it and one lawmaker excused.
The bill would have added “sexual orientation or gender identity” to a handful of state laws that protect people regardless of their race, creed, age, pregnancy, disability and other classes.
Before the bill was defeated, Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, sponsored a successful amendment that changed the bill significantly. The change deleted several sections in the original bill. The result was that gays and transgender people, or the children of such families, could be discriminated against when qualifying to serve on juries; in parks, public bathrooms and other so-called public accommodations; in child care; in serving on the Wyoming Veterans’ Commission; at charter schools, preschools, kindergartens and first grades, among other areas of state law.
Saved in the amendment were measures prohibiting paying employees less for the same work and hiring, firing, promoting or demoting on a discriminatory basis.
Madden said he received over 1,000 emails from people for and against the bill. He thought the amendment was a solid compromise.
Opponents to the bill said it was either unneeded or that it infringed upon religious rights.
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has received about 40 complaints of discrimination and violence over the past four years from gay and transgendered people. Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, said the behavior was heinous, but it's difficult to legislate behavior.
“Ten complaints a year borders on anecdotal,” she said.
Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, opposed the bill on religious grounds. The lawmaker and minister said freedom of conscience was violated with SF115.
“Let this state remain a bastion of liberty,” he said.
Other lawmakers said being gay or transgender is a choice.
Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, said definitions in the bill for words such as “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” were based on “a changeable self-perception of the persons making the claims of discrimination."
“Whether it’s you’re gay or lesbian, or if it’s transgender or however you want to say, it’s their choice,” Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette.
Some supporters such as Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said he could support the bill with the Madden amendment, but he could not before.
Barlow said his mother, an immigrant with dark skin, experienced discrimination when moving to northeastern Wyoming 50 years ago.
“Folks, this is real stuff,” he said.
House Speaker Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said the bill comes down to whether a person can do the job.
“The good Lord didn’t put us on Earth to denigrate each other,” he said.
Brown disagreed that being gay is a life choice. He reminded lawmakers that everyone knows someone who is gay or transgender, and there are more.
“I’m telling you, they’re in the closet," he said. "They're in the shadows."
It's hard not to take the vote personally, said Wyoming Equality Chairman Jeran Artery, who was involved in a group that supported the bill called Protect Working Wyoming.
“I’m just trying to focus on the progress and how many amazing senators and representatives stepped up to support the bill, and spoke so eloquently,” he said. “I really thought Speaker Brown’s comments really hit the nail on the head.”
After the vote, Artery tweeted he was looking for real estate in Fort Collins, Colorado, which he later said was a joke.
“It is tempting, though. It’s so frustrating,” he said. “There’s a lot of us in Wyoming who are very lucky to work for great businesses that have those protections in place. I’m one of them. But at Wyoming Equality, we hear the heartbreaking stories. For people to say this is not important and not necessary and it’s OK for these individuals to be discriminated against, to literally be tortured on the job, I just don’t understand that logic.”
Artery said he will continue to fight for an anti-discrimination bill in Wyoming.
Liz Brimmer, who helped organize a business group called Compete Wyoming, which advocated for the bill, said she was disappointed by the vote but proud of lawmakers who stood in support.
“We are grateful for the strong and broad support we had from all across Wyoming – families, industries, businesses, faith leaders and wonderful residents who believe we are the Equality State,” she said.
Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said in a statement the organization hears from people in Wyoming who are fired.
The foundation started in honor of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old man who was murdered for being gay in Laramie in 1998.
“Opponents of this bill assured us they love everyone like a brother or sister, but a picture of a same-sex wedding on a personal cellphone can warrant someone being fired with no recourse at all,” he said. “We know Wyoming constantly defies stereotypes and picks its own course. The sad surprise to us today was that 60 good people got divided and derailed in floor debate on the verge of standing up for their hardy, determined fellow citizens who face this kind of injustice.”