A bill protecting the rights of gay and transgender workers has advanced to its farthest point in the history of the Wyoming Legislature.
The House Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee passed Senate File 115-Discrimination on a 6-2 vote Friday. The bill had passed the Senate last week, and now awaits three rounds of debate in the House.
During final amendments on the bill, Edmonds proposed an amendment to make the bill effective “when hell freezes over.” Harvey asked him to leave the meeting, and counted him as absent even as he called out a “no” vote before he left the room.
Harvey said the ejection followed a procedure she’d rarely seen used in her 12 years as a lawmaker. She said the civility rule applies equally to the public and to members of the committee.
Edmonds characterized his amendment as a joke that fell flat.
“Man, it was getting tense in there and I made a joke, and I am going to apologize to the Chairman,” he said. “To anybody else who was offended, I thought it would break the tension. I think they know it wasn’t a serious amendment.”
Edmonds said he put Harvey in a very difficult position, and that he wasn’t thinking ahead about how his comment would be received. “She had to do something — she had to kick me out at that point,” he said. “So I am mainly sorry for what I did. … I’ll behave myself better in these committees.”
Edmonds said he expects the House vote on SF 115 to be a defining vote of the 2015 session. “It will be the one that surpasses Medicaid expansion as the thing that defines who wins and loses elections the next time,” he said.
No other nondiscrimination bill has gotten this far. In 2013, a similar bill passed committee in the Senate, then died on the House floor.
If the bill is enacted, it would place Wyoming among 18 states with similar legislation banning workplace discrimination against gay and transgender people. Thirty-two states do not have such protections for either one or both of those groups.
However, Wyoming’s bill may have a significantly broader religious exemption than similar laws adopted in places like Salt Lake City, if passed as amended by the House Labor Committee.
Debate Friday focused on whether expanding nondiscrimination statutes in Wyoming to include sexuality or gender identity is in conflict with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Such statutes already protect race, religion, sex, age, pregnancy status, and other categories.
“Any time a government binds the conscience of men, that government is on shaky ground,” said Pastor Tim Moyer of Emmanuel Bible Church of Star Valley, who spoke on behalf of the Wyoming Pastors Network.
Some members of the public expressed concerns about private business owners being asked to serve people whose sexuality they disagree with. The committee considered two amendments that would have made private businesses exempt from non-discrimination laws, but members voted those changes down.
Pastor Shaun Sells of Calvary Chapel in Cheyenne cited the Wyoming Constitution, which states in Article 21 section 25:
“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.”
Proponents of the bill also cited the constitution, focusing on Article 1 Section 3, which guarantees equal political rights:
“Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality, the laws of this state affecting the political rights and privileges of its citizens shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever….”
For some lawmakers, the freedom of religion and free enjoyment of accommodations seemed to come into conflict.
“I am worried we have two freedoms butting heads,” said Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne), who voted against the bill. “We need to be really careful about squashing our ability to express beliefs and opinions in favor of other situations. It is really a challenge to balance.”
Many businesses and associations spoke in favor of the bill, including the Wyoming Petroleum Association and the Wyoming Mining Association. Several people told stories of young gay people who were considering leaving the state because they did not feel they could safely work here as doctors or engineers.
“When I decide where I live and work after graduation, Wyoming is unable to compete with states that have taken steps to protect my rights,” said Garrett Zans, a University of Wyoming engineering graduate student and former track athlete who is gay.
Kathy Vetter of the Wyoming Education Association also had concerns about how graduates would be treated. “We demand our students are not harassed in schools,” Vetter said. “That right should not be taken away from them when they graduate and move into the workforce.”
The movement on the non-discrimination issue comes on the heels of a court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal in Wyoming last fall. For more than a decade before that, Wyoming’s lawmakers had been locked in a stalemate on issues relating to sexuality. The Legislature was unwilling to pass Defense of Marriage laws or approve non-discrimination same-sex marriage bills.
Today’s action gives a sign that stalemate has lifted, setting the stage for historic debate in the coming week, assuming the House leaders allow the bill to come to the floor.
Wyoming House Labor Committee vote on Senate File SF 115-Discrimination
6 ayes 2 no, 1 absent.
YES: Reps. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer), Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), JoAnn Dayton (D-Rock Springs), Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson)
NO: Reps. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette), Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne)
ABSENT: Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Cheyenne)
— This article was corrected to reflect the proper party affiliation of Rep. Andy Schwartz — Ed.