In historic action Tuesday, the Wyoming Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill protecting people from discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Senate File 115, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), still has to clear the House before it would go to the governor to be signed into law. But the 24-6 passage in the Senate marks the first time an anti-discrimination bill protecting gays, lesbians and transgender people has passed one of the Legislature’s two chambers.
The bill survived a final reading amendment that would have granted an exemption to businesses that employ 15 or fewer workers. That change, offered by Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange), failed on an 11-19 vote.
Several senators spoke emotionally about the bill, including Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) who said its passage “does a lot to do something about the legacy of what happened in Laramie that painted this state as something it didn’t deserve.”
Case was referring to the 1998 murder near Laramie of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left for dead by two men because of his sexual orientation. He never regained consciousness and died several days later in a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital.
Oddly, while Case said he was proud of his fellow senators and of Wyoming for the bill’s imminent approval, he explained he would vote against it. “I believe we don’t have a right to tell someone how to run their business, without an overreaching public purpose,” Case said.
Still, prior to the vote Case said he was certain it would pass. “It’s all going to be fine, it’s going to be OK,” he said, referring to the division that the bill has sparked throughout the state. Legislators received numerous emails, letters and calls in both support and opposition to SF 115.
Meier maintained the bill isn’t needed because the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) already includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes against discrimination.
“There’s no reason for this bill, it already exists in federal law,” Meier said. “I think this is a problem that already has a solution. … This is a feel-good bill. It says ‘I’m OK, you’re OK,’ it would hardly change the law at all.”
But Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said the bill needs to be state law because the EEOC is a regulatory agency, not a court of law.
Perkins said he has three members of his extended family who would be protected by the new Wyoming law “who have been looking forward to having some of the effects of this law in their lives.”
“That’s a hard life they’re in,” he said of homosexuals and the transgendered. “I’ve heard parents say this isn’t the life [their children] would have chosen; it’s a tough row to hoe.”
Another Casper Republican, Sen. Bill Landen, said a lesbian co-worker at Casper College confided to him that when she was initially hired, “I was so afraid to let people know who I was, because I thought I’d be fired.”
“What a shame to have someone afraid they’ll be fired just because of their lifestyle or who they are. … For my friends where I work, I’m going to vote for them,” Landen said.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) noted that the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Wyoming Mining Association and many businesses backed the bill. “They’re strong behind us on this one,” he said.
Von Flatern said it will help Wyoming’s business recruitment efforts to be known as a state that welcomes all employees.
Former Senate President Hank Coe (R-Cody) said 15 years ago, the Senate wouldn’t have even considered the bill. To critics who contend it violates their religious conscience, he said, “It solves my fairness conscience. This is what it’s fair to do. It’s time, we’re the Equality State.”
The six members of the Senate who voted against the anti-discrimination bill were Sens. Paul Barnard (R-Evanston), Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Cale Case (R-Lander), Gerald Geis (R-Worland), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Curt Meier (R-LaGrange).