CHEYENNE — The Wyoming State Senate on Thursday defeated a bill that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sponsor Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the measure is a civil rights issue.
"It's time for Wyoming to take some steps forward on gay rights, on gender rights and issues, as we see in this piece of legislation," Rothfuss said.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said Wyoming lawmakers probably had a similar discussion when they gathered in 1869 and considered whether to give women the right to vote. He said deciding whether to grant equal rights to gays and lesbians should be easier because it's already been done elsewhere.
"The people of Wyoming are ready for this. They truly are," Case said. "This is not a big deal anymore. We accept gays and lesbians, and different gender orientations. It's all over. The battle's all over."
Opponents, however, said they were concerned the bill would make gays and lesbians a new protected class of citizens, a development that could lead to employment lawsuits.
"Our legal system is so expensive and so distorts things, I have reservations in the employment area about creating special and protected classes," said Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper.
Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, said he questioned the need for such legislation. "At the end of the day, I'm really curious as to whether we're just looking for a problem that necessarily doesn't need a solution," he said.
Meier said he has hired people who have a different sexual orientation.
"Never had any problem with them. They did their job, worked for my organization fine," he said. "When they had another opportunity, they moved on. I'm a pretty good old conservative boy, but I don't discriminate against people. I think that's the way a lot of people are in Wyoming."
The Senate voted 13-17 against the bill.
The House this session has defeated two bills that would have permitted same-sex marriages and same-sex domestic partnerships. The marriage bill never made it out of committee, but the partnerships bill died Thursday after a lengthy debate on the House floor.
The floor debates in the House and Senate this week mark the first time, at least in recent decades, that pro-gay legislation has reached either floor.
Rothfuss said he was disappointed in the Senate vote but said he expects the issue will come back. "Obviously, the country's moving that direction," he said.
He noted getting the bills heard in both houses was a positive step. "It's a necessary step to get it out there and get it discussed by the full body, and I'm hopeful in the future we'll be able to get this group moved in that direction," Rothfuss said.