The Republican-dominated Wyoming House is usually free from contentious debates. With Republicans controlling the chamber by a massive 51 to 9 margin, conservative bills usually sail through with super-majorities, and liberal bills almost invariably die in committee.
Partisan rancor is limited, because the odds are stacked so heavily towards the right wing, that most bills either get rubber stamped or squashed by the lopsided GOP majority. However, on Friday, heated debate over an anti-discrimination bill produced some rare legislative fireworks in a committee hearing.
The conflict occurred during a debate over Senate File 115, a Senate-passed measure sent to the House for approval. The Labor, Health and Social Services Committee met to determine whether the measure should be pass through the committee to be voted on by the entire House. The bill would add “sexual orientation or gender identity” to existing laws that protect people from discrimination based on race, religion, age and other protected classes.
After a contentious two hour debate, Committee Chairwoman Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) evicted Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Cheyenne) from the meeting. The effective date for the bill to be enacted into law is set for July 1, 2015. Edmonds suggested the bill be amended to take effect “when hell freezes over”. That remark prompted Harvey to toss Edmonds out of the meeting. She had insisted at the beginning of the meeting, and during the meeting, that civility needed to prevail. Prior to his caustic “when hell freezes over” comment, Edmonds had also sardonically asked why pedophiles weren’t protected by the law.
On his way out of the meeting, Edmonds tried to register a vote against the bill. Harvey refused to count his vote. The Bill passed through the committee on a 6-2 vote. With a 51-9 Republican Majority in the House, its prospects of passing are uncertain. However, the ease with which it passed through the committee, and the fact that it made it through the equally GOP-dominated Senate, gives cause for optimism. The Wyoming Senate is 26-4 Republican. A Democrat, House Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was the bill’s original sponsor.
Regardless of the final outcome of Senate File 115, the exchange between Republicans who favor ending discrimination against LGBT Americans, and those who do not, is a promising sign for the future. At least on this one issue, there may be cracks in the conservative ranks. Those fissures open the opportunity for gay and lesbian Americans to be treated equally under the law even in red state bastions of the Republican Party like Wyoming.
Interestingly, Elaine Harvey is a member of the Mormon church. So is fellow bill supporter, Drew Perkins (R-Casper). Given the Mormon Church’s very active role, less than a decade ago, in spearheading support for California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8, the transformation of some Latter Day Saint lawmakers into crusaders for non-discrimination measures is a welcome surprise. The Wyoming Bill does contain some exemptions for religious institutions, but even so, if enacted it would significantly move the state forward.
The rift between social conservatives who oppose LGBT rights, and some moderate Republicans and Libertarian types who favor LGBT rights, is likely to grow in a number of states in the years ahead. Many Republicans who are in favor of gay rights or indifferent to them, have for too long allowed social conservatives to call the shots, by failing to stand up to those bigots. However, as LGBT progress marches forward, more Republicans, like Elaine Harvey, are finding the courage to stand against the homophobia of fellow Republicans.
A non-discrimination law passing in Wyoming not only would be of practical benefit to the state’s many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, but it would also mark a major symbolic victory for LGBT equality. Wyoming is where Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year old college student, was brutally murdered in October 1998 by anti-gay bigots. His murder is perhaps the most infamous hate crime against a gay person in U.S. History. It would be an honor to his memory if the Wyoming legislature passes an LGBT anti-discrimination bill that originated in Laramie, the very city Shepherd called home when he was killed.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.