What Does Utah Have but Wyoming Doesn’t? A New Anti-Discrimination Law
Wyoming and Utah share many of what are often called “Western values.”
Both are conservative states run by Republicans, where residents value their Second Amendment rights, and the vast majority believe the federal government should stay out of states’ business (despite the fact that federal funding makes up 29% (UT) and 39% (WY) of state revenues).
But if this pair of states are virtually mirror images of each other politically and philosophically, why did one state overwhelmingly decide to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace and the other deride the concept and mislead the public about the issue?
We could conclude the first state, Utah, is incredibly tolerant of the LGBT community, while the second, Wyoming, is extremely bigoted. But that would make for a really short, simplistic article. Also, it isn’t true — at least we don’t think so.
The facts are Utah’s Senate voted 23-5 in favor of its anti-discrimination bill, and the House approved it overwhelmingly, 65-10. Wyoming’s Senate vote was right in line with its Utah counterpart, 24-6, but the House rejected the controversial Senate File 115 on a 26-33 vote.
Why the two states’ legislative actions were different is fairly complex, but the main reason was support and opposition by specific, highly influential religious denominations.
The secondary factors included a dogged determination by extremely far-right Wyoming House members to intentionally mislead the public and each other about what the bill actually did.
The success of the LGBT’s lobbying effort is becoming known as “the Utah Compromise.” While activists had been trying to educate the public about the issue for several years, the bill was only introduced about a week before it passed.
Utah benefited tremendously by a perfectly timed announcement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons. The church said it supported the legislation because of its “level of fairness for everyone.”
Mormons have a huge say in what happens legislatively in Utah, and a lesser but important influence in other states where there are a large number of LDS members. That includes areas of Wyoming (primarily in the far west) where Mormonism is the dominant religion.
Both states’ bills would protect gay, lesbian and transgendered workers by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to already protected classes on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, religion, sex or disability.
Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) — the only openly gay member of the Wyoming Legislature — said many in the state incorrectly believed Wyoming already protects gays, lesbians and transgendered people from on-the-job discrimination. It doesn’t.
“We had a lot of new [legislators] who didn’t know the issue very well,” Connolly explained. “They erroneously believed everyone is protected [from discrimination], and they still tried to believe it even after they were told it isn’t true.”
In Wyoming an employer can fire any workers because they are homosexuals, or if it is suspected they are. An act as normal as have a wedding photo on one’s desk could easily lead to dismissal for an employee in a same-sex marriage — and under current state law there is absolutely no recourse for the worker. He or she cannot sue the employer, because the firing would be legal.
That scenario cannot happen in Utah anymore, but it still can in Wyoming.
Connolly said the positive statement of support by the LDS church for Utah’s anti-discrimination bill had a definite effect in Wyoming, with Mormon legislators who would normally weigh in on religious issues generally staying out of the debate.
But there was a huge opponent of SF 115 waiting in the wings: the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, which includes all of Wyoming, tried to scuttle the bill in the Senate to no avail. The House, though, was far more receptive to the pitch given by Donna Adler, the Catholics’ lobbyist. She testified on many issues, but actively led the campaign against SF 115.
In a letter to all state senators during the session, Adler wrote that the bill “is a serious threat to the integrity of the church and an unconscionable interference with the exercise of religion by the state.”
“It’s critical to have the support of the religious community if you’re going to do this. From the beginning [Wyoming] Catholics were very anti-SF115,” related Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality, which supports gay rights. “It was tough for us, because it seemed to be in conflict with Catholic doctrine and what the Pope has been saying, which is, ‘We’re all God’s children and we don’t like discrimination.’
“The diocese put together a coalition against the bill and said they were standing behind their lobbyist,” he added. “But we did have strong support from the Episcopalian and independent churches.”
Connolly said Catholic priests were told by the bishop to either include opposition to the bill in their sermons, or put a notice in their church newsletters that Catholics should contact their lawmakers and tell them not to vote for SF 115.
If Adler remains the Catholics’ lobbyist next year — and there is no indication she won’t still have the job — Connolly said getting the denomination to change its position will be difficult. That lobbying effort has to start now, she said.
In Utah, Mormon leaders and LGBT proponents had a series of confidence-building conversations and realized that continued confrontations would lead to mounting casualties on both sides. But that hasn’t happened with the Catholics here.
One argument against the bill left unspoken but still an issue for Catholics, Connolly said, is the idea that adding gender identity to the list of protected classes could somehow result in the church being required to have women priests.
As the House debated the bill in committee and on its third and final reading, there was a lot of crazy talk. We know they’re not professional lawmakers, but even for a “citizen” legislature, the House spent an inordinate amount of time talking about bathrooms.
It wasn’t codes or regulations or anything else you might think could spark such a strange discussion. No, the whole issue came up because some legislators — and apparently the people they represent — are scared to death they might find themselves in a stall next to someone who is gay or lesbian. Or, in their worst scenario, a transgendered person who isn’t in the “right” restroom.
As Pat Crank, a former attorney general, told one room full of legislators and interested parties, if you don’t think the LGBT community uses the same public restrooms you do now, you’re simply “crazy.”
The second greatest fear was that florists, bakers or wedding dress designers would be forced to perform services for gay and lesbian couples, against their personal religious beliefs that the happy couple is doomed to spend eternity in hell.
Rest assured no one in Wyoming will have a gay couple put a gun to their head and say, “Bake us a cake or else.” Gays and lesbians would rather have friendly customer service than someone who hates them simply because of who they are. If a homophobe doesn’t want their business, others will be happy to have it.
The restroom and catering issues were smoke screens, of course, and had nothing at all to do with the bill House members were supposed to consider.
Artery described the debate in the Senate as “professional.”
“I hoped the House could have a positive discussion and take away the fear-mongering about how everybody would be forced to sell flowers and wedding cakes to gays and lesbians,” he said. “It was disheartening.”
On its first reading, the House amended the bill and removed housing protections that stayed in the Utah law. Wyoming landlords can still refuse to rent to someone because they know or think the would-be tenants are homosexuals or transgendered.
Both Connolly and Artery said they don’t truly understand the opponents’ motivation.
“You had some of the most religious people in the House arguing about this bill and saying it created a special class and took away their [own] religious freedom and their right to discriminate against whoever they want to discriminate against,” Artery said. “And they’re protected! They already have this religious exemption. To hear them say, ‘I want to deny people access to my business’ just didn’t make any sense to me.”
Connolly added some foes of SF 115 apparently believe they have “a duty to discriminate” against gays and lesbians.
Utah officials said they would like their new law to be a model for other states to pass LGBT anti-discrimination bills. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have added sexual orientation to their statutes, while 18 states and D.C. include gender identity.
Artery noted proponents of the bill had “a great business coalition” this year that should build support next year. It included the Wyoming Business Alliance, the Wyoming Mining Association, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the state’s Lodging and Restaurant Association.
“With the business coalition standing up and saying, ‘This is important to us,’ I was surprised we didn’t get it done this time,” the lobbyist said. “But we need to recognize we had some real positive things happen this year. Getting 24 votes in the Senate was excellent progress.”
Connolly and Artery said they would be happy to get advice from Utah legislators. Still, they realize passing the bill in Wyoming will be an uphill struggle in the 2016 budget session, when non-budget bills need a two-thirds vote just to be introduced.
“Even in the unlikely chance the bill passes during the budget session, the coalition will try again next year,” Artery said. “It’s a good opportunity to keep the discussion alive, educate people and let them know we will keep going until we get it passed.”
Connolly recalled that immediately after the House killed SF 115, a fellow legislator who voted against the bill raced to her desk and showed her a copy of the religious exemptions Utah’s contained.
“Maybe we can do this next year,” he said.
But the religious exemptions in the Wyoming and Utah bills were almost exactly the same, Connolly said.
The same House members who killed SF 115 this year will be back for the budget session, so no one holds out much hope the measure will pass in February 2016. But look at the numbers — the bill only needed five more “yes” votes in the House to reach the magic figure of 31. Another probable yes vote, Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan), didn’t vote due to illness.
Think about it — If Democrats and moderate Republicans can win that many additional seats in next year’s general election, maybe we won’t have to hear all of that bathroom talk again.