CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation passed a Wyoming legislative committee Wednesday, a move that gay activists say is crucial to affording them the full rights of citizenship.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-1 Wednesday morning to endorse the bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. It now heads to the Senate floor.
Rothfuss said he believes there's a decent chance of the bill moving forward. "There's a lot of support for equality, for fair employment practices," he said. "And obviously, there's an awful lot of opposition. So I would expect some passionate debate and a narrow outcome. I'm hopeful."
Committee Chairman Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, voted in favor of the bill. A rancher, Schiffer is a veteran legislator and former president of the Senate.
"This is a piece that fits into the process of implementing what's in our Constitution, that all people are created equal and have equal rights," Schiffer said. "This is just part of the process of us as a state maybe maturing, maybe broadening our views."
A House committee earlier this week recommended approval of a bill that would allow same-sex domestic partnerships. If the bill becomes law, it would essentially give gays and lesbians the legal rights of heterosexual married couples.
"I think it's a sign of the times, people are really thinking about those things and trying to deal with them, and deal with them according to their own conscience," Schiffer said of the success of both bills so far. "It is tough to do, it's a process, but I think we are trying to deal with it."
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, cast an absentee vote against the bill.
Jason Marsden, executive director of Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver, testified that he wrote a column in a Wyoming newspaper coming out as a gay man after Shepard, a student at UW, was killed in 1998. Police said Shepard was killed because he was gay.
"It was some sort of breath of fresh air that Wyoming needed at a time when the national media was painting us to be an unruly bunch of rabble-rousers who persecuted gay people with impunity, which of course we all know we're not like that here," Marsden of his column.
Nonetheless, Marsden said the Matthew Shepard killing has come to define the state in the eyes of the world. He said he's traveled in Europe and found people whose only knowledge of the state is that it's home to former Vice President Dick Cheney and the place where Shepard was killed.
"We have an opportunity here to uphold our state motto (the Equality State), to provide protection here for people who really need it," Marsden said.
Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, testified against the bill. She said she had received scurrilous emails, including some containing racial epithets, after testifying earlier in the week against the domestic partnership bill at a committee hearing. A black woman, she had called on gays and lesbians to "please stop carpetbagging on our civil rights movement."
On Wednesday, Hutchings said she is a member of four protected classes because of her sex, her race, her religion and being a disabled veteran.
"I've personally been spit on, beaten, kicked and called the n-word every day in elementary school and I survived. It was part of our lives, and we just dealt with it," Hutchings said. "As I said, these classes were there for a reason, not just because a few people had a hard time in school.
"You can look at some kids who were picked on for having red hair, having freckles, being poor, being short, being tall," Hutchings said. "Are we going to add them to our protected classes also?"
Becky Vandeberghe, chairman of WyWatch Family Action, told the committee her group was concerned that there was no exemption for religious organizations. She said in other states that have enacted similar measures, some Christian business owners have been sued or prosecuted because they have refused to participate in same-sex events.
"We feel this bill attacks religious freedom," Vandeberghe said. "I don't believe, and our organization doesn't believe, that standing on biblical principles is a hate crime."
The committee adopted an amendment Rothfuss proposed that states the anti-discrimination language won't be construed to limit the free speech and hiring rights of religious organizations.