A Wyoming non-dscrimination bill to provide employment protections to LGBT workers passed the Senate on a vote of 24-6. Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would help members of his family. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

The Wyoming Senate today passed a non-discrimination bill to add workplace protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Senate File 115-Discrimination received strong support on a 24 to 6 vote. The measure contains a broad exemption for employers organized as religious corporations.

Should the bill become law, it would allow investigation into claims of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender workers. It would also add members of the groups to the state’s non-discrimination statutes.

Some lawmakers said the bill marked a turning point in the Senate’s views on LGBT issues. The body turned down a similar bill in 2013 on a vote of 17 opposed and 13 in favor. Today’s passage of SF 115 showed the number of Senators in favor of the measure nearly doubled to 24.

Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) said he didn’t think the Senate would have considered a non-discrimination bill 15 years ago.

“Times change,” Coe said. “It’s 2015 and we need to step up and do what we have to do. Discrimination in the workplace is just wrong, absolutely wrong.”

Supporters of the workplace-fairness bill include the Wyoming Business Alliance, the Wyoming Petroleum Association, and the legislative committee of the Wyoming Mining Association, among others. Many businesses testified that the bill sends a message that the state is open and ready to employ all kinds of workers.

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said the bill could help change Wyoming’s image in a positive way.

“This does a lot to do something about the legacy of tragic events in Laramie that painted this great state with something it didn’t deserve,” Case said, referring to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

The bill now goes to the House, where it will likely face its first test before the nine-member Judiciary Committee. Committee members include a number of social conservatives and two Democrats. One committee member, Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) was a vocal opponent of pro-LGBT legislation in the 2013 session. Rep. David Miller (R-Lander), chairman the committee, voted against non-discrimination legislation when it came to the House floor in 2011.

Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) spoke against the bill, saying federal law already provides a method for LGBT workers to file complaints. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Debate on the floor

Before the final vote on SF 115, Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) spoke against the bill. He argued that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission already has the authority to investigate workplace discrimination relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Under a 2012 regulatory action, the EEOC considers LGBT claims to fall under discrimination on the basis of sex. However, the federal commission only investigates discrimination claims in businesses of more than 15 people.

SF 115 would allow the Wyoming Department of Workforce Service to investigate discrimination claims involving businesses with fewer than 14 employees, as well as claims with the larger companies investigated by the EEOC.

Meier was outnumbered by Senators who spoke in support of the measure.

“I am proud of you and Wyoming and how far you have come that we can be having this debate about this bill,” Sen. Case told his fellow Senators. “I hear names on this bill that I didn’t hear three years ago and I am so proud of you.”

Even so, Case followed his libertarian views and voted against the bill because he does not think the government should be able to tell businesses what to do.

Sen. Coe, who supported the bill in committee and on the floor, wasn’t swayed by religious arguments against the bill.

“This canned email I got (said this bill) was a violation of their religious conscience,” he said. “This bill solves my fairness conscience. This is what is fair to me. It is time for the Equality State.”

Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) spoke in support of the bill, saying he has three family members who would benefit from the workplace protections it offered. They fall into both the gay and transgender categories, he said.

Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) spoke in favor of the bill. His amendments to exempt some for-profit businesses from discrimination enforcement failed to win approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. For more on Kinskey’s amendment, read this WyoFile piece. (Gregory Nickerson/Wyofile)

Perkins offered amendments on first and second reading to add definitions to the bill and clarify that the religious exemption included “expressive associations.” He is a member of the Latter-day Saints Church, which took a position of support for similar measures two weeks ago, while continuing its opposition to same-sex marriage. (The church previously supported Salt Lake City housing non-discrimination ordinances in 2009.)

Missing from the morning’s debate was the argument from 2013 that adding LGBT workers to the state’s list of protected classes would cause a spike in frivolous lawsuits against employers.

Supporters of this year’s bill said that members of other protected classes have not caused a spike in lawsuits. Such protected classes include Christians, African Americans, and women, who make up a large portion of Wyoming’s workforce.

Debate on 2013 non-discrimination bill

In 2013 WyoFile covered the debate on Senate File 131-Discrimination. That measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with a religious exemption amendment introduced by bill sponsor Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). It then failed on the Senate floor.

This year, Rothfuss wrote the religious exemption into the original draft of the bill, and supported the efforts of Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) to refine the exemption language in first and second reading.

An excerpt of WyoFile’s 2013 reporting is included here:

About 10 LGBT advocates and 10 opponents addressed the Judiciary Committee of four senators regarding SF 131-Discrimination. (Another senator did not to attend but left a “no” vote.) The small gathering belied the weight of an issue that has occupied a significant place in public discourse for decades.

“The world is noticing that this somewhat unexpected thing is happening in this somewhat unexpected place,” said Jason Marsden, director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “We have an opportunity here to hold to our (Equality) state motto and provide protection for people who really need it.”

On the opposite side of the debate was Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne). She and other opponents of the discrimination bill worried that the measure would intrude on the free speech of Christian organizations.

“This would be the only protected class that would clash against one of the other protected classes. It would hamper a religious freedom if we were to vote for this,” Hutchings said.

Others who testified said the law could lead to a shut down of Christian adoption agencies who refused service to same-sex couples.

Becky Vandeberghe of WyWatch Family Faction also argued that non-discrimination could impinge on free speech. “This bill would turn every Christian who stands on their religious principles into a criminal. Having biblical convictions should not be punished,” she said.

Miles Dahlby of the Wyoming Family Coalition worried that the bill would stifle discussion about the morality of sexuality. “Instead of squashing the ability to say, ‘I’m coming out’ or ‘Hey friend, I think there’s a better way,’ both of those ideas should be protected,” he said.

Responding to these criticisms, bill sponsors Sen. Chris Rothfuss and Rep. Cathy Connolly, both Democrats from Laramie, brought an amendment stating that nothing in the bill could be construed to limit speech of religious groups. The amendment also exempted religious organizations from parts of the bill relating to employment discrimination.

After the discrimination bill passed committee 4 to 1, it went to the Senate floor where several lawmakers argued it could enable gays to wage frivolous lawsuits against employers who fired them for reasons not relating to sexuality. The measure failed by 17 to 13.

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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