CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A bill that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity cleared a critical committee hearing on Friday and now heads for a vote next week in the full Wyoming House of Representatives.
Same-sex couples in Wyoming gained the right to marry last year only through federal court action. The Wyoming Legislature repeatedly had defeated proposals in previous years to change state law to allow it.
So far in this legislative session, however, the bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity has enjoyed comparatively smooth sailing. It already has cleared the Senate and on Friday cleared the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee by a vote of 6-to-2.
The bill would add prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to a range of state laws that now prohibit discrimination based on other factors, including race, age, disability and political affiliation. The committee on Friday strengthened exemptions for religious organizations, but it shot down proposed amendments that would have exempted private employers.
The vote came shortly after Committee Chairman Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, took the unusual step of ejecting a committee member, Rep. Harlan Edmonds, R-Cheyenne.
Edmonds, serving his first term in the House, had asked bill sponsors Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, earlier in the hearing whether the definition of sexual orientation in the bill would include pedophilia. The senators responded it would not.
And when Edmonds questioned the senators whether they believed the framers of the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions intended the documents to afford protections such as those in the pending bill, Perkins and Rothfuss responded that they did.
When the committee came to the last page of the bill as it was considering possible amendments, Edmonds said he wanted to change its effective date from July 1, 2015, to "when hell freezes over."
"I would ask you to leave the committee room," Harvey told Edmonds. "We said civility will prevail."
Representatives of the Wyoming Mining Association, Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Wyoming State AFL-CIO urged the committee to pass the bill, saying it's a critical step to allow industry to attract top employees.
"It's amazing that we're here today even having this debate," said Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming State AFL-CIO. "Gay marriage is legal in Wyoming; they should not be penalized on the job."
Garrett Zans of Rock Springs testified that he's currently studying for his master's degree in electrical engineering at University of Wyoming. He said he's been an honors student, student athlete and supports the anti-discrimination bill.
"I love Wyoming and have considered living here after graduation," Zans said. "For many people, this decision would be made based on factors such as employment opportunities and proximity to family and friends. For myself, and the rest of the LGBT community, this decision has been made more complicated. Presently, my ability to live and work in Wyoming is hindered because I could be summarily fired for simply being who I am."
The bill drew criticism from several religious leaders, including a lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne.
Donna Adler, lobbyist for the Diocese of Cheyenne, testified that if the bill were truly about fighting discrimination, the diocese would support it.
"However, the bill as presently written poses serious threats to constitutional protections of religious liberty, for churches, faith institutions and businesses run by people of faith," Adler said.
Adler said the bill would criminalize activities under the First Amendment, including freedom of association and freedom of speech. "You cannot limit, curtail, penalize or criminalize the exercise of my constitutional rights by statute."
House Speaker Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said Friday that he expects the full House will consider the bill on Tuesday or Wednesday.