About 100 people showed up to a marriage equality rally in Casper on October 14, 2014, in Casper. LGBT equal rights proponents in Wyoming enjoyed new, broader support for their cause during the 2015 legislative session. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In the 2015 Wyoming Legislature gay and lesbian rights proponents got a major boost from new coalitions of the energy, tech, and tourism industries; local governments, educators, and several mainline religious denominations also joined the effort.

This year’s legislative session marked the first time that the gay and lesbian advocates attracted such a wide range of allies in favor of their cause. For decades, groups such as Wyoming Equality and United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming have worked on LGBT issues with little support from the broader business community. That changed late in 2014 when veteran lobbyists organized the coalitions and took advantage of growing popular support for LGBT rights in the state. Together they pushed a workplace anti-discrimination bill further than ever before.

And the push continues. Wyoming businesses are a significant part of the effort. Business leaders said they joined the movement because they see workplace anti-discrimination as a fairness issue that reflects what many companies are already doing.

“For us the bottom line is we’ve had these policies in place at a company level, and let’s codify it,” Wyoming Mining Association director Jonathan Downing said.

Senate File 115 aimed to protect workers from harassment or being fired from their jobs on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also have ensured that LGBT customers had access to businesses that offer public accommodations. The bill would have covered both the public and the private sector, but exempted churches and religious organizations. It advanced through two committees and the Senate floor until it fell five votes short of passage in the House.

The persistence and cohesion of the coalitions reflects a shift in attitudes that left many advocates celebrating, despite the fact the bill didn’t pass.

“I look at the session as overwhelmingly positive,” Wyoming Equality director Jeran Artery said. “To see the non-discrimination bill make it as far as it did was really encouraging to me. The broad support from coalitions and individuals that stood up to support it I thought was really tremendous.”

Liz Brimmer, a veteran Wyoming lobbyist, helped form the Compete Wyoming business coalition to back the bill. She believes that this year’s push raised awareness about discrimination in the workplace. Compete Wyoming disbanded after this year’s legislative session and she doesn’t plan on lobbying in the future, although she expects others will step in to help carry the issue.

“I think there will be people focused on it because there is still a need,” Brimmer said. “Because the coalitions were so broad, that’s why I think there is hope.”

Continuing business support

In the weeks following the session, the Compete Wyoming website stopped showing up on Internet searches. That’s because the coalition was built specifically to lobby for Senate File 115 for the 2015 session only, Brimmer said.

Liz Brimmer speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on SF 115 during the 2015 session. She helped form the Compete Wyoming coalition of businesses to back the bill. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Brimmer does not plan to lobby in Cheyenne in the future because of the passing of her father, the late U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer, in October 2014. She lobbied in Cheyenne in recent years in part to spend time with him, she said.

However, Brimmer made clear that strong business and public support for non-discrimination will remain even though she has stepped back.

“This is about thousands of people who believe in non-discrimination,” Brimmer said. “It is not dependent on any 20 people. It is part of what is a philosophy of the state. It lives in thousands of people.”

Former members of Compete Wyoming say they plan on supporting anti-discrimination for the LGBT community in the workplace. But it will likely take an experienced lobbyist to organize a similar coalition of business advocates, if proponents choose to use a similar strategy.

“We would support it, but we couldn’t take it on ourselves,” said Wyoming Education Association spokeswoman Coleen Haines. “If there was legislation that came up, we would support that because it is in our bylaws and platforms.”

Bill Schilling, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, said his group will likely support anti-discrimination in the future, though it won’t take an active role in organizing a new coalition. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Wyoming Business Alliance president Bill Schilling predicted that his group and other business leaders will continue to support anti-discrimination, though his organization won’t take the lead on the issue.

“I do think that this is an issue that speaks to changes that are occurring socially in society, nationwide, and by state and by local communities,” Schilling said. “I don’t see it going away.”

Chesie Lee with the Wyoming Association of Churches said her coalition “definitely” will support anti-discrimination in the future. The group passed a unanimous resolution for anti-discrimination in 2012. They were an ally of the Compete Wyoming effort, but not a member group.

“We already had that position so we were glad to be able to be allies with the business interests,” Lee said.

Longstanding advocates also remained confident that business support will continue without Compete Wyoming, and that a new industry coalition might take shape the next time lawmakers debate the issue.

“People still need these protections,” Wyoming Equality director Jeran Artery said. “The coalition was so successful this last session that it would be a real shame in the future if we didn’t get the band back together again,” Artery said. “If we need to find a volunteer to spearhead putting another coalition together, we will do that.”

Jeran Artery of Wyoming Equality addresses supporters of LGBT equality during a rally on October 14, 2014, in Casper. The Supreme Court of the United States, by declining to take the case, codified same-sex marriage as recognized by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The coalitions

Longtime supporters of LGBT rights in Wyoming went to the legislative session aiming to build on the momentum of last fall’s court victory for same-sex marriage. Having secured the right to marry, many LGBT advocates in Wyoming and across the country saw anti-discrimination in the workplace as the next big goal for their movement. Wyoming’s LGBT anti-discrimination bill resembled similar measures introduced in Montana, Idaho, Utah, and other states this year.

The reinvigorated campaign in Wyoming is largely the result of coalition-building by key lobbyists. Jeran Artery and Wyoming Equality tapped into a statewide email list of grassroots supporters under what they called the Protect Working Wyoming campaign. That list comes from decades of work on LGBT causes, and the campaigns leading up to the marriage decision in Wyoming last October.

Protect Working Wyoming has support from several national organizations including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Human Rights Campaign, American Unity Fund, and the ACLU.

Members of the Compete Wyoming coalition included:

  • Wyoming Mining Association
  • Petroleum Association of Wyoming
  • Wyoming AFL-CIO
  • Wyoming Business Alliance
  • Wyoming Chamber of Commerce
  • Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association
  • Wyoming Education Association

In addition, the Compete Wyoming honorary board included former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R), a long-time LGBT rights supporter, and Susan Thomas, wife of the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas (R).

Compete Wyoming members framed anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community as a workplace fairness bill that would be good for business. That expands the effort beyond a human rights perspective, Brimmer said.

The interior of the Warehouse 21 marketing firm in Cheyenne. Co-owner Dave Teubner said state law needs to “catch up” with non-discrimination practices that businesses already have in place. (Courtesy Warehouse 21)

Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association director Chris Brown said non-discrimination is important for the tourism industry, which includes 30,500 full- and part-time jobs, or 12 percent of the state workforce.

“[F]inding adequate amounts of qualified employees is very challenging, not just for hospitality, but for many industries,” Brown said. “We need to be doing everything we can to send a loud message that all qualified workers are welcome in Wyoming.”

Mining companies organized under the Wyoming Mining Association also endorse the effort. Cloud Peak Energy, a major coal producer in the Powder River Basin, has had a non-discrimination policy since its founding in 2009.

“Cloud Peak energy simply believes any discrimination in the workplace is wrong, and SF 115 is appropriate for all workers in Wyoming,” Cloud Peak Energy vice president of public affairs Richard Reavey said in a letter to the House Labor Committee.

The oil and gas industry also backs the effort. “The vast majority of our members have zero tolerance anti-discrimination policies,” said Nick Agopian, co-chair of Petroleum Association of Wyoming governmental affairs committee.

Halliburton is perhaps one of the more well-known oil and gas companies with such a policy.

Wyoming’s tech industry, while small, is growing, particularly in Cheyenne. Attracting businesses to relocate to Wyoming could be easier with anti-discrimination, some advocates said.

“There is a melting pot of people that are talented in that industry, and it has nothing to do with their sexuality,” said Dave Teubner of the Cheyenne advertising firm Warehouse Twenty One. “You will be hard-pressed to move a company to Wyoming with employees without addressing this.”

Dave Teubner, co-owner of Warehouse 21, speaks at a House Labor Committee meeting on Senate File 115. He argues that Wyoming will face challenges recruiting tech and LGBT-friendly businesses without passing anti-discrimination. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Teubner asked state policymakers to “catch up” with what businesses are already doing. “It is good business that Wyoming businesses have been practicing for a really long time,” he said.

Education organizations also support extending anti-discrimination protections to the adult LGBT community. “We demand our students are not harassed in schools,” Kathy Vetter of the Wyoming Education Association said in testimony to lawmakers. “That right should not be taken away from them when they graduate and move into the workforce.”

The Wyoming Association of Churches represents a third coalition in favor of LGBT non-discrimination. The group includes local divisions of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Presbyterian Church, Quakers, and the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming.

“The Gospel teaches us that God is the ultimate judge and we are called to love one another unconditionally,” Episcopal Diocese Bishop John Smylie said in statement. “I believe that discrimination of any kind is man assuming the role of Jesus, and is contrary to His teaching and our call as Christians.”

On the other side of the debate are citizens and three main conservative religious groups: the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, WyWatch Family Action, and the Wyoming Pastors Network. The groups had significant support from their email lists, and many came to testify before the House Labor Committee.

“This statute is not so much about fairness as it about force,” said Tim Moyer, a pastor at the Emmanuel Bible Church in Thayne, Wyoming, and a leader in the Wyoming Pastors Network. “Any time a government binds the conscience of men, that government is on shaky ground.”

Public opinion shift in Wyoming

The campaign for anti-discrimination comes amid growing support for LGBT rights in Wyoming. A 2014 University of Wyoming survey found that the majority of Wyomingites — 53 percent — support same-sex marriage. That’s up from 40 percent just two years earlier. Only 20 percent of Wyomingites supported same-sex marriage in 2004.

The overwhelming majority of 400 Wyoming residents surveyed on behalf of Compete Wyoming support LGBT anti-discrimination in the workplace. According to a statement from the group:

  • 78 percent believe that no one should be fired based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • 96 percent believe that job-hiring decisions should be based on a person’s experience, abilities and performance, not based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yet census data suggests there are pockets of Wyoming where residents may have little to no exposure or personal interactions with residents who are openly gay. These pockets are relatively small in population. According to 2010 census data analyzed by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, only five of Wyoming’s 23 counties — Goshen, Platte, Niobrara, Washakie and Big Horn — have no self-reported same-sex couples living together. Laramie County has 153 same-sex couples who share housing, while Natrona County has 110.

Openly gay and lesbian couples may be scarce in some parts of Wyoming, but discrimination toward them is not so rare. The Human Rights Campaign found that 23 percent of survey respondents in Wyoming who identify as gay or transgender said they had experienced employment discrimination relating to hiring, firing, or pay. Thirty-six percent of LGBT workers reported being harassed on the job.

Religious exemptions

As with the failed Senate File 115, and a similar bill in 2013, any workplace anti-discrimination protections for LGBT employees will likely incorporate a religious exemption to satisfy opponents. Anti-discrimination advocates in Wyoming and elsewhere have drafted their legislation to exempt churches and affiliated religious organizations, including the Boy Scouts. That means such organizations could continue to have policies excluding gay or transgender people.

Similar efforts resulted in a major compromise between the Latter-Day Saints Church and non-discrimination advocates in Utah.

Even so, it is not clear that the LDS church’s willingness to work on the issue will sound a nationwide truce in the culture wars. Many evangelical denominations remain opposed to such anti-discrimination legislation. The newly formed Wyoming Pastors Network showed up in force this year to testify against the anti-discrimination legislation.

Wyoming Pastors Network member Shaun Sells of the Calvary Baptist Church in Cheyenne cited Article 21, Section 25 of the Wyoming Constitution in speaking against SF 115:

“Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of this state shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship.”

Members of the public and the Wyoming Pastors Network raise their hands to show their opposition to Senate File 115 at a House Labor Committee meeting during the 2015 session. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Opponents worry that anti-discrimination bills can force private citizens to transact business with those whose lifestyles they disagree with, particularly when it goes against their religious convictions. So far, opponents have not testified that such interactions have occurred in Wyoming. Yet they say an anti-discrimination law amounts to an attack on free speech, often described under broader terms as “freedom of conscience.” That freedom should apply in all places and all circumstances, even when not in church, they contend.

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property,” said Pastor Tim Moyer. “It is wrong to invade a man’s castle. To force him to practice in opposition to that conference is violate the core of his being.”

LGBT advocates who study civil rights history are familiar with the argument. Some believe it parallels religious arguments against desegregation in the 1960s.

“You know, we took seriously the ability for people to sit at lunch counters and order a hot dog in this country because it wasn’t about hot dogs,” Matthew Shepard Foundation director Jason Marsden said. “It was about whether we live in a country where people can avail themselves of public services equally.”

Matthew Shepard Foundation director Jason Marsden spoke at a House Labor Committee hearing on LGBT anti-discrimination. He said talk of denying services to gays and lesbians reminds him of religious arguments against desegregation in the 1960s. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Yet Marsden says many in the LGBT community can see the point of a business being able to choose who it serves.

“Even a lot of gay people would say, oh, for heaven’s sake, go find someone else [who will serve you],” Marsden said. “And at the same time, a lot of people feel like a couple should not have to go into a bakery and undergo an interview about their identity before they can order a cake.”

Gov. Matt Mead (R) expressed support for anti-discrimination by employers, saying workers should be judged on merit and performance. Mead said he doesn’t want LGBT workers to get fired and end up needing social assistance.

“I do think there is a way for us to respect religious freedoms that we all value, and also find a way forward to make sure that we are not firing people because of their sexual orientation,” Mead said.

However, Mead stops short of saying public businesses should serve all people, whether gay or straight.

“The example that I’ve heard before is the [baker] learning they are going to have to bake a cake for a gay couple to be married and refuse to do that,” Mead said. “To me, I’m not resolved on where to go on that, because I think we also have to respect private people have different (views).”

Some opposition to workplace anti-discrimination comes from people worried about children sharing public school bathrooms with a transgender student or adult. Former Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank dismissed that worry, saying that gay and transgender people are already using public bathrooms in the state, and that current laws already address any fears of misbehavior in bathrooms.

“This isn’t about bathrooms,” Marsden said. “This is about trans people, in particular, have terribly high unemployment often because of discriminatory employment practices, and it puts them in poverty, it strains the social safety net, it costs the taxpayers money, and it deprives us of the talents of people who could be effective in the workforce.”

Cases around the country continue to crop up relating to public businesses refusing on religious grounds to serve gay couples seeking services for their weddings. A case in New Mexico ruled against a photographer. Two cases are currently underway in Washington relating to a florist who refused to serve a gay couple “because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.”

There are no known cases in Wyoming.

Marsden expects a federal court will eventually have to rule on how service businesses such as professional photographers fit into public accommodation law. As it stands now, Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) believes Wyoming’s public accommodation law doesn’t apply to service businesses that do not deal with walk-in customers.

In addition to opposing SF 115 this year, conservative members of the House pushed for House Bill 83-Religious freedom restoration act aimed at allowing businesses to refuse service on the basis of their religious conscience. The bill, which also failed, aimed to codify a legal right for businesses to turn away gay or transgender customers, or other non-protected groups, for religious reasons. (For more detail on HB 83, read this WyoFile story.)

The two bills fit Wyoming into a trend sweeping the United States in which the advance of LGBT rights and calls for fair treatment in the workplace prompts pushback from those who believe the cultural changes threaten religious freedom.

“We were facing what some consider an anti-discrimination bill, but what I consider a discrimination bill, and on the other hand also we were trying to have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said HB 83 sponsor Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis). “We have to make sure that individual rights, specifically the freedom of conscience is protected.”

Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis), shown here speaking against Senate File 115, introduced a Religious Freedom Restoration Act during the 2015 session. The bill passed the House, but Senate leaders did not grant it a hearing. (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Winters said he and others who support religious freedom do not hold any malice toward those who opposed HB 83. “I don’t have that at all,” Winters said. “Matter of fact I have a deep appreciation for all those people, even ones who disagree with me. What I want to make sure is that all our First Amendment rights are protected equally.”

For Winters, the clash of ideas between anti-discrimination for LGBT workers and religious rights is part of what helps keep America strong. Anything that diminishes the First Amendment could cause damage to the country, he said.

“I think everybody here has in their heart a desire to have a state where their grandchildren will experience freedom in, but we all have different avenues to get to that path,” Winters said.

In Indiana, the state that most recently passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, businesses and organizations have loudly protested the bill’s passage. Most notably, the Internet company Angie’s List announced it was putting on hold a $40 million expansion plan that would create 1,000 new jobs using state aid.

“It’s very difficult…to point to this as a harmless piece of legislation,” Angie’s List CEO Bill Osterle said in a report by the Indy Star. “It has caused national embarrassment,” for Indiana.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, also criticized Indiana’s passage of the law. Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff went even further and ordered his employees to stop all work that involved travel to Indiana. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lily, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the 50,000-person gamer convention Gen Con also criticized the bill’s passage. In response Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) said he was working with lawmakers to “clarify” the bill. He said the controversy stems from misunderstanding of what’s in the bill.

Artery said a similar backlash could happen if Wyoming passes the bill, and he hopes Wyoming lawmakers are paying attention.

“It is hurting the bottom line of that state,” Artery said. “When the CEO of Apple says ‘Your state passed a really bad bill,’ pay attention.”

What’s next

A movement in Laramie has already signed up 50 businesses to adopt a non-discrimination policy for the city. Some members of the city council have agreed to introduce the measure to the full council this spring.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle published an editorial calling for the City of Cheyenne and Laramie County to take up anti-discrimination as an issue, regardless of what happens at the state level. Last spring the city of Jackson became the first Wyoming government subdivision to adopt anti-discrimination protections in Wyoming. The non-discrimination ordinance applies only to city workers, not private businesses.

Meanwhile, Wyoming Equality is poised to go on a statewide tour to broaden support for non-discrimination. The group plans to gauge which communities might be favorable to an anti-discrimination ordinance.

In upcoming legislative sessions, LGBT advocates say they will work for workplace non-discrimination, and perhaps seek similar policies for housing. A brief effort for anti-discrimination in housing failed in this year’s legislative session when the House voted down an amendment proposed by Rep. Cathy Connolly (R-Laramie). A push for hate-crimes laws may also figure into future sessions.

It’s unlikely that anti-discrimination or a religious freedom restoration bill will come up during the 2016 budget session, since all bills require a two-thirds vote to be introduced. That could mean the next major legislative debate of LGBT rights and religious liberty in Wyoming may not happen until 2017.

CORRECTION: This story was corrected to reflect Clarence Brimmer’s position as U.S. District Court Judge, and that the town of Jackson was Wyoming’s first local government subdivision to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. — Ed.

 

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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