CHEYENNE — A bill that would allow same-sex couples in Wyoming to create domestic partnerships carrying most of the legal rights of conventional marriage cleared a state House committee vote Monday after a sometimes contentious, sometimes bizarre public debate.
The move sends legislation on to a full floor debate in the state Legislature for the first time.
“This is a forward step,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat and a lesbian. “It’s important that our relationships are recognized. These are the kinds of statutes that both protect us and recognize us.”
Connolly sponsored House Bill 168, which cleared the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee by a 7-2 vote. She also sponsored a full gay marriage bill, which the committee eliminated Monday by a 5-4 vote.
The votes were taken after a two-hour hearing before nearly 100 people in a Herschler Building basement meeting room in the state Capitol complex.
Speaking after the votes, Connolly said she expects both the domestic partnership bill and a bill pending in the Wyoming Senate that would outlaw discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation to pass the full Legislature this session. She has sponsored similar bills in past legislative sessions only to see them fail.
Connolly said the bills are important for many reasons, including economic development.
The state wants the highest quality and most progressive companies to locate here, Connolly said. Those companies want good roads and broadband, and they want to make sure the employees they bring here will find this is the best place to raise their families.
“And some of their best employees are going to be gays and lesbians,” Connolly said. “We know that.”
The domestic partnership bill creates a civil legal framework for partners by filing with the county clerks. The bill excludes minors and doesn’t allow for religious officiating.
The failed same-sex marriage bill would have changed the definition of marriage under Wyoming law to read “two natural persons,” rather than a man and woman.
Although the public hearing was held on both bills, most of the opposition appeared to be targeted at the gay marriage bill.
Supporters included Dr. Jason Bloomberg, who runs a medical clinic in Cheyenne. He said the lack of legal recognition of same-sex couples can hamper their access to health care.
The Rev. Audette Fulbright said many members her congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cheyenne are gay and have no legal protection.
Jason Marsden, director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver, said he and his partner of 15 years, former Casper Mayor Guy Padgett, are essentially “legal strangers” because their union is not recognized by law.
“There are a lot of couples like us,” Marsden said.
Marsden said Wyoming law is “just a great big roadblock” to gay and lesbian couples, some of which have children, sorting out their own affairs, from medical decision-making to inheritence issues.
“I think there’s a growing sense that the appropriate, small-government solution is to let people set up relationships to the extent that they can provide their own legal protections for their own families,” he said.
Several legislators also testified for the bills, including Sen. Bernadine Craft, D-Rock Springs, who is studying to become an Episcopalian minister.
“I don’t know what we’re afraid of,” she said, “This is about human rights.”
Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, spoke against both bills. A black woman serving her first term in the House, she called on gays and lesbians to “please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement.”
Testifying while seated at a table next to Connolly, Hutchings said she has heard some gays and lesbians equate their struggle for civil rights to the efforts of mixed-race couples to secure the legal right to marry in the late 1960s.
Hutchings said being black is a result of genetics. “It is inborn,” she said. “Science does not evidence a genetic involvement to homosexuality. It is but a choice. Being black is involuntary, it is not a choice. Homosexuals may choose who they want to be.”
Hutchings said the gay lifestyle is harmful to the mind, spirit and body, noting the number of cases of AIDS.
Later, one of the members of the committee, Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne, who also is black, said he found Hutchings’ remarks distasteful.
“To me an injustice is an injustice. Just because they weren’t lynched from trees does not mean they have not suffered,” he said of the gay and lesbian community members.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, also said he found Hutchings’ comments distasteful.
Another opponent of the bills was Robin Goodspeed, a self-described formerly active member of Oregon’s gay and lesbian communities.
Goodspeed, who moved to Wyoming six months ago, said she knew the way she was living was wrong.
“I finally came to the realization that I was responsible for my own life,” she said.
She disputed the notion of a “queer” gene.
“Why would the state of Wyoming contemplate changing the definition of marriage from a man and a woman?” she said.
Star-Tribune capital bureau reporter Joan Barron contributed to this story.