CHEYENNE — Sponsors of a controversial religious rights bill that the gay community called discriminatory said Thursday afternoon they are withdrawing the legislation because there is not enough time for the Wyoming Legislature to weigh in on the matter.
House Bill 135 would have allowed people to sue their employers if their policies about LGBT people conflicted with their religious or moral convictions. It would have deemed illegal Laramie’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Critics of the bill said government employees, such as police officers or firefighters, could have denied help to gay people if they found their lifestyles offensive.
Wyoming Equality, the gay rights organization, said of all state legislatures currently considering religious freedom bills, Wyoming’s was the most discriminatory.
However, sponsors of the bill said the discussion about religious rights is one worth having and they want to revisit the issue after the Legislature adjourns in early March.
“The intention of this bill has always been to hold Wyoming to the highest standard in terms of equal protection under the law,” said Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, a Lingle Republican who was the primary sponsor of HB135, in a prepared statement. “The religious freedoms guaranteed to each and every one of us are the bedrock on which our Constitution is founded. When these unalienable rights are threatened, so too is every other constitutional right we enjoy.”
Rep. Nathan Winters, a Thermopolis Republican who is a pastor outside the Legislature, said in the statement that equality and the protection of religious freedoms are not mutually exclusive.
“Discrimination is not what our faith or values teach us,” he said. “We must find a balance among our laws, ensuring both our First Amendment right to practice and live our faith each day while practicing tolerance and respect for the rights of our fellow man.”
Rep. Sue Wilson, a Cheyenne Republican, also said she hopes to strike a balance of rights among all people.
“We all need to continue this important conversation,” she said.
Representatives of Wyoming Equality and the Wyoming Association of Churches described being relieved that HB135 is dead this year.
“It was very divisive within the faith communities,” said Chesie Lee, director of the churches association.
Sara Burlingame of Equality Wyoming said the bill was never acceptable. She said she looks forward to sitting down with the sponsors of the bill and discussing their concerns.
She said the gay, business and faith communities called and emailed lawmakers, asking them to oppose the bill. Many also criticized the bill on social media.
“I have never seen the level of engagement ever about legislation that affected the LGBT community,” she said. “But it was swift and it was outraged.”
The bill was withdrawn through a procedure that required Steinmetz to explain she wanted to withdraw the bill because of time constraints. Then there was a vote. Fifty-six representatives in the House agreed to withdraw the bill. Four were not present during the vote.