CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Hammering out a compromise agreement on a bill to stop recognition of out-of-state marriages and civil unions, a legislative conference committee Thursday weakened language that would give same-sex couples access to Wyoming courts.
The agreement came after several legislators criticized some members of the conference committee for conferring privately beforehand to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
By a 4-2 party-line vote, the Republican-led committee decided to remove language guaranteeing that people who entered into same-sex civil unions outside Wyoming can get annulments in Wyoming courts.
The changes made to the legislation, House Bill 74, are now subject to approval by the Wyoming House and Senate. At least one senator said the bill could be a tough sell in the Senate.
Supporters of the bill said the legislation is needed to resolve a conflict in Wyoming law, which defines marriage as a contract “between a male and a female person” but also recognizes any valid marriage performed outside the state.
Last November, a Wyoming district court judge refused to grant a divorce to a lesbian couple from Lusk who married in Canada. The couple has appealed the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
But the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill. Most significantly, the Senate version included a clause guaranteeing that people in a legal out-of-state civil union would have access to Wyoming courts.
The conference committee on Thursday scrapped that clause, replacing it with language that guarantees court access only to opposite-sex couples.
State Rep. Amy Edmonds, the Cheyenne Republican who chaired the conference committee, said the new language makes it less likely that civil unions will be recognized. The issue of whether to recognize civil unions, she said, should be addressed by the Legislature at a later time and not in this legislation.
Couples in same-sex marriages and civil unions, she said, would still be able to go to court over issues such as property and child custody — just not when they want to annul those unions.
With the conference committee’s changes, the bill is now closer to the House’s version. But that will make it a hard sell in the Senate, said state Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, a co-sponsor of the bill and a conference committee member.
Gov. Matt Mead has also said repeatedly that he wants to ensure that same-sex couples have access to the courts.
Even the way the conference committee handled the compromise was controversial.
The committee met briefly Thursday morning, but the meeting was pushed back to the afternoon to give members more time to work on the bill.
That led some legislators and opponents of the bill to charge that the four Republicans on the committee — all of whom are co-sponsors of the legislation — were going to confer behind closed doors to work out an agreement.
“Legislature does not meet in secret conference committees,” state Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “One exception today and that is wrong, apologizes to all.”
But Edmonds and Hicks denied that they were meeting in secret to push through changes to the bill. As with other bills, they said, they met one-on-one with other legislators — including the two Democrats on the conference committee — to try to find an agreement that would satisfy everyone.
“We can’t come to a conference committee without having some idea of what we might want to propose on the table,” Edmonds said.