LGBTQ workplace nondiscrimination bill passes House committee

A bill that would protect LGBTQ workers in Wyoming from discrimination on the job passed a House committee Friday morning.

House Bill 230 would help ensure that a worker could not be fired, denied a promotion, have their hours cut, or be otherwise demoted or refused employment because of their sexuality or gender identity.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), said the proposal is a compromise after having seen other, more wide-ranging LGBTQ nondiscrimination bills fail year after year in the Legislature. Still, he acknowledged that this year’s attempt would face strong opposition.

“I’ll be blunt. This bill doesn’t go as far as half the people in this room would want it to go, and it goes too far for the other half,” Zwonitzer said.

Accordingly, the bill narrowly passed, with a 5 – 4 vote. It will now proceed to the full House of Representatives for debate.

Protecting workers

Currently, it’s perfectly legal in Wyoming for an employer to terminate a worker because of their sexuality or gender identity. A person’s boss can simply tell them: “You’re gay? You’re fired.” There is no legal recourse.

“You’re gay? You’re fired.” There is no legal recourse.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against workers on the basis of things like race and religion. But it does not specify anything about sexuality or gender identity.

In order to fill this gap, 21 U.S. states have created their own LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. Many of these also prohibit discrimination in areas outside of work, such as in housing and public accommodations.

HB-230, however, is narrowly tailored only to affect the workplace. If it passes, it would allow LGBTQ workers the ability to petition the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services if they faced on-the-job discrimination.

Special treatment

Rep. Pat Sweeney

Rep. Pat Sweeney (R-Casper), who sits on the Revenue Committee, said he had received lots of emails about HB-230, for and against it. He said many of the people who contacted him in opposition to the bill claimed that it would result in LGBTQ people receiving special treatment.

“They say that a company would be forced to hire a gay person who’s not the best qualified,” Sweeney said. “Is that true?”

Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) explained to Sweeney that HB-230, like laws to protect against racial discrimination in the workplace, would not affect hiring in that way.

“Are you required to hire someone because they’re Asian?” Yin, who is Chinese-American, said.

Good for business

Wyoming’s official economic diversification task force, ENDOW, has said that a nondiscrimination law like HB-230 would have a “high impact” on efforts to attract and retain talented workers.

“This is a zero-cost way to develop our workforce in Wyoming,” Yin said.

In public testimony before the committee, Jeran Artery, who runs a financial planning practice in Cheyenne, said that most of the nation’s corporate world already has LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies in place at the company level. These companies tend to find equivalent state laws attractive.

“This is a zero-cost way to develop our workforce.”

“Ninety percent of S&P 500 companies have these,” Artery said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here.”

Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne), a co-sponsor of HB-230, said the bill would send a reassuring message to businesses whose executives might not know much about Wyoming, but know that it’s the place where Matthew Shepard was killed.

“It would tell companies that if you want to come to Wyoming and bring your employees, they will be safe here,” Burlingame said.

Brandon Lopez, a recent University of Wyoming graduate, told the House committee that his degrees in mathematics and physics made him well suited to work in the oil and gas industry. He said he feels comfortable in Laramie as a gay man, since the city has a municipal ordinance that prohibits LGBTQ discrimination.

“But not all of my opportunities are in Laramie,” he said. HB-230’s passage would encourage him to pursue work elsewhere in the state.

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Religious persecution

Opponents of HB-230 argued that the bill would, in fact, discriminate against people whose religious beliefs don’t allow them to work alongside gay or transgender people.

Nathan Winters, discrimination victim

Former state representative Nathan Winters, speaking on behalf of the Wyoming Pastors Network, said the bill would violate his parishioners’ freedom of conscience.

“This bill would require some to lay down their faith when they step outside the church,” Winters said.

He also worried that LGBTQ people could perform dishonest tricks on unassuming believers. For instance, he said, a gay person could secretly apply for a position at a Christian bookstore, and then reveal his sexuality once he had secured the job. The bookstore, Winters said, would not be able to fire the homosexual.

Deacon Mike Lehman, of the Catholic Diocese in Cheyenne, said that HB-230 was part of a broader trend of discrimination against Christians. He said that, for instance, judges have recently been denied access to the federal bench because of their Catholicism.

Rep. Sweeney, who ended up voting for HB-230, asked both Winters and Lehman if they could imagine some middle ground between the bill’s proposed protections and their own faith-based opposition.

Neither man said that he could.

Rep. Western listens to GOP executive director Kathy Russell after the meeting.

Punitive measures

The Wyoming State Republican Party’s official priorities for the 2019 Legislative session include blocking any bills that would enact LGBTQ nondiscrimination.

It’s the party’s number-two priority, behind outlawing “crossover voting” in primary elections.

Kathy Russell, executive director of the Wyoming GOP, testified against HB-230. She explained that the state Republican Party would not accept any laws that included language about sexual orientation or gender identity.

The state party has recently retaliated against Republican legislators who vote against its preferences, in an apparent effort to enforce party purity.

Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Sheridan), who serves on the House Revenue Committee, asked Russell point-blank whether Republican legislators who vote for HB-230 could expect “punitive measures.”

Russell dodged the question. “I can’t say anything,” she said. “I have no knowledge” of what a “future group” of state party members will do.

“So, maybe?” Western said.

He voted against the bill.

The proposal is narrowly tailored to only prevent job-related discrimination. This is an effort to bypass opposition that has killed similar—but more wide-ranging—bills each of the past five years.