The Wyoming House of Representatives rejected a bill on Tuesday that would have extended anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender workers.
After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 33-26 to kill Senate File 115-Discrimination. One Representative was excused.
The bill still made history by getting further in Wyoming’s legislative process than similar legislation. In 2013 the Senate killed a similar bill before it could make it to the House. This year SF 115 passed the Senate and two committees before falling short on the House floor.
The group Protect Working Wyoming supported the bill, and said its failure means that it is still legal to fire Wyoming workers because of “who they are or whom they love.”
“A bipartisan majority of people in our state support this commonsense legislation — and today, members of the House failed to seize an opportunity to strengthen our economy and attract top talent,” Jeran Artery of Protect Working Wyoming said in a statement.
The business coalition Compete Wyoming expressed its gratitude at how much support the bill garnered during the session.
“We are disappointed by this vote, but gratified and proud of all the others, and especially of Wyoming legislators who say, ‘Yes, it’s time Wyoming,’” Liz Brimmer, lobbyist with Compete Wyoming, said in a statement.
Compete Wyoming formed in the weeks before the session as a broad business coalition to support the bill. It’s supporters include the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Wyoming Mining Association, the Wyoming Business Alliance, and others.
“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,” Brimmer said.
Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis), a Baptist pastor, voted against the bill because he worried about the bill’s implication for freedom of conscience and free speech.
“I’m glad that it was defeated because we need to protect our basic rights found in the first amendment,” Winters said. “If one loses the right to a free conscience they no longer live in a free society, and for that reason I am glad the bill was defeated.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson) said she had high hopes for the bill’s passage. During floor debate she mentioned documented instances in which Wyoming workers were abused because of their sexuality. One worker was tied to a truck while the driver played chicken. Another worker was harassed by co-workers who repeatedly put human feces in his lunchbox and locker.
“Considering all these pretty egregious cases of discrimination, it was an important statement for Wyoming to make that we don’t tolerate that sort of behavior, and we were unwilling to do that today,” Petroff said.
Businesses throughout the state lobbied in favor of SF 115, saying that prohibiting discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity is needed to compete for talent. “They want to portray to the outside world that this is who we are as a state,” Petroff said.
Petroff was unconvinced by arguments that SF 115 would have threatened freedom of speech.
“What are people asking for? Freedom to discriminate,” Petroff said. “So if people want freedom to discriminate, then this would have been bad to pass.”
Senate co-sponsors Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) and Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) said the House made the wrong decision to kill SF 115.
“I was disheartened by the House’s decision not to move forward with it,” Rothfuss said. “This is something that would have helped business in Wyoming. It would have helped equality in Wyoming. There was tremendous support for it. This was something that was positive for people and for individual rights.”
Opponents of the bill argued that sexual orientation and gender identity are changeable conditions driven by personal preference, and thus different from other protected classes.
“May I ask you, do you not think that obese people may not be added to this list also?” Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette) said. “It is a choice and they are just as well discriminated against as anybody else.”
House Speaker Kermit Brown (R-Laramie) disagreed, saying he doesn’t view sexual orientation as a choice.
“Some people are hardwired differently, I don’t know why,” Brown said. “The good Lord didn’t put us on earth to sit here and denigrate each other. I can’t buy that. We are all here to live a coequal existence.”
Other opponents of the bill argued it was unnecessary because many Wyoming businesses and municipalities already have non-discrimination as part of their policies.
“Employers are taking action on their own without a law to support workplace equality,” Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) said during debate. “Wyomingites are moving in the right direction without this bill. … A law to tell people what they are already doing is redundant, and I urge a no vote.”
Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) brought up an experience in which a friend of his mother’s remembered how she was rejected by much of the community because of her dark complexion when she came to Wyoming more than 50 years ago. Barlow’s mother immigrated to Wyoming from France, and her father was from India. Barlow said he didn’t want anyone to experience that kind of treatment, because it can hurt for decades after the fact.
“This can be very personal,” Barlow said. “This is real stuff. This is people’s lives. … I do not want to go back and have the things that hurt my mother. Let’s get the employment thing right.”
Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) amended the bill to cut out sections not related to workplace discrimination. The sweeping changes removed language prohibiting businesses, schools, hospitals and other public entities from refusing to serve gay and transgender people. The remaining part of the bill prohibited employers from paying gay workers differently, or making hiring decisions based on on their being gay or transgender.
Madden said his amendments were intended to satisfy opponents of the bill while retaining the sections on workplace nondiscrimination. His amendment passed on a voice vote.
Earlier in the debate Reps. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), and Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) withdrew amendments in deference to Madden’s amendment.
Lawmakers have widely diverging views about how Wyoming would be viewed for refusing to extend workplace anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender workers.
“I don’t think it speaks to who we are,” Petroff said. “Most Wyomingites, my perception is they want these protections in place. We want to judge people for what they do 9-5, and not what they do in their private lives.”
Winters said the bill’s failure showed how strongly the state feels about the first amendment. He didn’t think it would hurt the state’s reputation.
“Wyoming actually has a wonderful reputation as far as our appreciation for people,” Winters said. “The difference is we also feel very strongly about protecting their first amendment rights when they get here.”