CHEYENNE — A bill that would have would have allowed same-sex couples in Wyoming to create domestic partnerships carrying most of the legal rights of marriage died Wednesday on a close vote in the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is headed to the full Senate after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the day.
The House voted 35-24 against the domestic partnership bill. It was the first time at least in recent decades that pro-gay legislation reached a full floor debate.
Proponents said the bill would grant same-sex couples as well as other citizens a way to share their property and make health care decisions for each other.
Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, was a co-sponsor of the bill. She said her husband recently died and she had no trouble under state law taking care of arrangements and handling property issues.
But Wallis said she's friends with an elderly gay couple, and said their relationship enjoys no such legal protection despite clear language in the state constitution that citizens should be treated equally.
"To my mind, that's not right. That's not fair," Wallis said.
Opponents warned that the bill threatened to open the state to legal action seeking to force it to approve same-sex marriage.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, spoke against the measure, saying: "We all know that this is about same-sex marriage and civil unions."
Baker also contended gays and lesbians have particular health issues, and said approving the bill would increase health care costs.
"The fact of the matter is that this is something that's pushed on us to be politically correct. 'Let's be the Equality State,'" Baker said, mimicking bill supporters. "The fact of the matter is that there are disastrous consequences to this bill."
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Jason Marsden, director of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation, said the vote was disappointing. He said the bill had offered the Legislature a chance to sidestep the issues of religion, marriage and social tradition while still recognizing that there are thousands of gay people in the state.
"These families are going to live and grow up and die in the absence of meaningful legal protection for their families," Marsden said.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, sponsored the anti-discrimination measure. Speaking after the committee vote, he 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," Rothfuss 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 Senate president.
"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."
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, cast an absentee vote against the bill.
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. Hutchings, who is black, had called on gays and lesbians to "please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement."
On Wednesday, she said she is a member of four protected classes because of her sex, her race, her religion and being a disabled veteran.
"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?"