News (USA)

Out lawmaker hopes marriage equality will boost Wyoming anti-discrimination bill

Out lawmaker hopes marriage equality will boost Wyoming anti-discrimination bill
Out lawmaker Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, talks to colleague during a session of the Wyoming Legislature.
Out lawmaker Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, talks to colleague during a session of the Wyoming Legislature. Miranda Grubbs, AP

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Gay rights activists in Wyoming are hoping the recent court victory affording them the right to marry will give them momentum as they push to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, has pushed gay rights bills for years. Although none has passed, she notes that they’ve been moving further along in the legislative process each time.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled this fall on cases from other states that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Wyoming is among the states covered by the court’s rulings.

In response to that ruling, the advocacy group Wyoming Equality and several same-sex couples in the state filed a successful federal court challenge against Wyoming’s state statute that had specified marriage in the state could exist only between one man and one woman.

Connolly, who is openly gay, said she believes the shift on the same-sex marriage issue in Wyoming will persuade a majority of lawmakers in the session that begins next month to ban discrimination against same-sex couples.

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“I think so, I honestly do,” Connolly said. “I think that there is a real sense of fairness, equity, as well as economic development in terms of these issues. The marriage case says you can now marry the person that you love. We don’t want you to get fired because you do so.”

Connolly said the bill she’s working on will address various provisions of state law, such as qualifications for serving on juries, and specify that people can’t be excluded because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Past efforts to pass such a bill have failed, with many lawmakers saying they don’t want to infringe on employers’ religious liberties or to designate same-sex couples as a special, protected class of citizens.

If the bill passes, Connolly said the state’s Workforce Services Office could investigate complaints and take action against employers who discriminate.

Jeran Artery, executive director of Wyoming Equality, said he believes updating state law to reflect full rights for people is common sense.

“Like every other person working in the state of Wyoming, we want our job performance to be based on how we do at work, not on who we love,” Artery said.

“It’s good for business. That’s the other thing,” Artery said. “I believe that around 75 percent of Fortune 500 businesses already have these protections in place, so a lot of folks are already doing it here in Wyoming. It’s not that we have these stories of discrimination every single day, but they do happen once in a while. Unfortunately, there are a handful of bad-apple bosses, and the only way that they will adhere to the system is if you hold their feet to the fire.”

Artery said such a bill wouldn’t do anything to block employers from weeding out incompetent employees or to keep landlords from barring prospective tenants who were unqualified.

“This is just about an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and being judged at work on the merits that everybody else is basically judged on,” Artery said.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, said Friday he will vote against such a nondiscrimination bill.

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“I oppose the idea strictly because I think it’s an issue that is really going to put a hamper on those people that want to have their religious freedoms, and have a moral compass based on religion,” Baker said.

Baker said he’s considering sponsoring a bill to specify that business owners wouldn’t have to accommodate same-sex couples who sought their services. Some businesses, such as wedding studios and bakeries, have been sued in other states by same-sex couples after refusing to provide services for their weddings.

Baker said he’s asked the nonpartisan Legislative Service Office to research the issue for him and hasn’t decided yet whether he will introduce such a bill.

“As a business owner myself, I think I have the right to refuse service to people,” he said.

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