January 26, 2017
What could have become the worst “religious freedom” law in the nation was suddenly withdrawn by its sponsors Thursday afternoon, to the delight of Wyoming’s LGBT citizens and their supporters.
House Bill 135, a proposal that stirred up the biggest controversy of the Wyoming Legislature’s session so far, would have allowed state and local governments and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. It would also have eliminated Laramie’s 2015 non-discrimination ordinance that protects the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents.
HB-135’s main sponsor, Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), issued a press release announcing her decision to pull the bill. Her excuse was that the state needed to talk more about her proposal.
It was a blatantly bogus reason, because Wyoming residents declared loud and clear since her bill was filed that it was both hateful and unconstitutional. Critics pointed out that even though HB-135 is laughably named the “Government Non-Discrimination Act,” its only purpose was to discriminate against LGBT people.
It was rumored throughout the temporary capitol halls at the Jonah Business Center this week that the bill would go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but the day came and went without a hearing. Before the House adjourned in the afternoon, Steinmetz told her colleagues she wanted to withdraw the bill, and they didn’t hesitate to say Yes, thus sending it to the top of the trash heap of awful ideas.
“HB 135 aimed to protect the peaceful exercise of religious beliefs and adherence to moral convictions for people of all faiths without diminishing the rights of any other group,” Steinmetz said in her official statement. “With only a 40-day legislative session, the bill was withdrawn to give Wyoming citizens time for more thorough consideration. The bill supporters remain committed to safeguarding the free expression of religion with legislation that better accomplishes this goal.”
She added that the goal of her proposal “has always been to hold Wyoming to the highest standard in terms of equal protection under the law.”
“The religious freedoms guaranteed to each and every one of us are the bedrock on which our Constitution is founded,” she concluded. “When these unalienable rights are threatened, so too is every other constitutional right we enjoy.”
Which is, of course, total bullshit. The legislators responsible for this mess of a bill—Steinmetz and co-sponsors Reps. Nate Winters (R-Thermopolis) and Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) and Senators Paul Barnard (R-Evanston) and Curt Meier (R-LaGrange)—had to know exactly what this bill did, and “equal protection under the law” is the last thing they were concerned about. Steinmetz refused to talk to reporters after the session, telling one broadcaster that she wasn’t going to discuss the bill “at least for today.”
“My goal, and what I hope is the goal of every Wyoming individual, is to balance the rights of all of our citizens,” said HB-135 co-sponsor Rep. Sue Wilson. “We all need to continue this important conversation.”
That conversation should definitely continue, because there’s always the threat that this bill or a similar one could be put back on the Legislature’s plate in years to come. Fortunately, HB-135 pissed off so many people it won’t be forgotten soon.
Lobbyists were happy the bill is gone for the session.
“We’re overjoyed,” said a jubilant Sara Burlingame, education and outreach coordinator for Wyoming Equality, which fought for same-sex marriage and works to protect LGBT rights. “The Legislature listened to the thousands of voices of everyday people. There was an unprecedented level of engagement [against this bill], led by gays, religious and business leaders.”
Chesie Lee, executive director of the Wyoming Coalition of Churches, said she was surprised by the move. “I’m definitely very pleased,” she said. “This was a very divisive bill in the faith community because people who identify themselves as Christians and people of faith were reading it very differently. I personally feel what it was doing in the name of religious freedom was discrimination against the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Marguerite Herman, a longtime education lobbyist, said the upshot is that the Legislature had more valuable things to do. “Lawmakers have many important, weighty isssues on their agenda this session that will completely fill the time,” she said. “This was not the session to debate something that was very troubling and problematic.”