In a bold and courageous move, the Management Council of Wyoming’s legislature has updated its policy covering Anti-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment (Policy 02-02). On Wednesday, December 5, 2018 it opted to make two changes to the policy.
First, it made clear that elected representatives and senators are answerable to the people who elected them, and not to the state as employees. Second, it replaced a long list of protected categories with the simple and clear language of state and federal law.
It was this second change that ignited the discussion. Even though many nationalities, races and colors were represented, none batted an eye at deleting “race, color and national origin” from the policy. None of the religious people present cared about keeping “religion” as a protected class. Not a single woman argued that removing “sex” from the discrimination policy put her in jeopardy. The only category that people came to talk about was “sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI). That’s a fact worth pondering.
Representative Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) articulated the significance of this change as well as anybody. Talking about the SOGI language she said, “Organizations, businesses are adding that language. No one is taking it out. No one is taking out protected classes.” She is almost right.
Over the past decade corporate offices, executive agencies, cities and states all over America have been jumping on the SOGI train. Here in Wyoming, Laramie, Jackson and Casper have added some version of this language to city code. But not everyone wants to ride this train.
The U.S. legislative branch has declined to put this language into federal law. State lawmakers have rejected at least six different proposals since 2009 that would have inserted SOGI language into Wyoming statute. In November of 2017 the city of Sheridan adopted a discrimination policy designed to protect all citizens without using the highly controversial language. Most other Wyoming cities have quietly opted not to take up the matter at all.
Still, it is rare indeed for a jurisdiction to repeal such language once it has been inserted. Only two cities, to my knowledge, have done so. Houston, Texas and Springfield, Missouri both inserted SOGI language through their respective city councils. But in both places, citizens petitioned to make the issue a ballot referendum. In both places, the citizens repealed the language by majority vote.
Now the Management Council for Wyoming’s legislature has joined the vanguard of jurisdictions that are reconsidering the prudence of adopting this language. By a narrow vote (7-6) it decided to protect the employees of the Legislative Services Office and the citizens who work with the legislature by a policy that is explicitly tied to existing state and federal laws without creating a new protected class.
Three people from Evanston, myself included, traveled to Cheyenne to observe and participate in the hearing (22:17). Every seat was filled, while many people stood along the walls and spilled into the hallway. Others watched a video link in a room across the way. Clearly the issue was important to Wyomingites. I met people from Gillette, Sheridan, Torrington, Laramie, Casper, Douglas and Thermopolis. One even travelled from Meeteetse.
Senate President, and Chairman of the Management Council, Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) ran a professional and fair meeting. He invited each side of the issue to testify for 30 minutes limiting each individual speaker to three minutes. Those favoring repeal of the SOGI language were invited to speak first.
Representative Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) presented the legal and constitutional case for removing the language. She emphasized how the Wyoming Constitution is worded to protect the equality of all her citizens in the broadest terms. The singling-out of one group of citizens as a protected class weakens those broad protections.
Representative Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis) next testified that that “language like this, rather than protecting freedom has been used consistently across the country to limit it. It has not been used to enhance rights, but rather to weaponize the law regarding free conscience especially toward people of faith.”
Winters expressed his belief that SOGI language inserted into this policy could diminish the free debate of ideas in the legislature—the precise place where such debates ought to be held. For this reason, he and numerous other legislators were unable to sign the policy that included SOGI language.
The claim that SOGI language suppresses free speech and the free exercise of one’s conscience was in the heart of every speaker who urged the Council to remove the language. One would expect that their opposition would seek to refute that claim. Curiously, no one did. Rather, when Chairman Bebout turned the microphone over to those lobbying to retain SOGI language in the policy, speaker after speaker asserted that there ought to be laws against saying certain things.
Representative Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) referred to a speech made on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2013 (2:15:55). When one of his colleagues cited health statistics from a peer-reviewed journal Zwonitzer threatened him with physical violence “if he ever said that again within five feet of me” (35:35). He admitted that he was wrong to threaten a colleague but argued that SOGI language is intended to give him the right to charge a colleague with discrimination for saying such things.
Over the past ten years we have come to learn that this is the sticking point of SOGI language. It makes everyone feel good to say that we don’t discriminate against anybody. But without a clear definition of discrimination, we wind up talking past one another.
Most people think that discrimination means subjecting people to unfair rules and standards based on irrelevant factors. Nobody wants that. But when people are charged with discrimination merely for speaking the truth as they understand it, unfair rules and standards are a result of the very laws that were supposed to prevent them.
That’s why Wyoming is a leader in finding a better way to protect everyone. Our founding documents generally refrain from singling out any persons or groups when listing the freedoms of Wyomingites. They did not do this in order to exclude anybody, but precisely to include everybody.
Senator Drew Perkins made this point brilliantly when he was explaining his vote to improve the policy. He read aloud from the Wyoming Constitution’s Declaration of Rights. Article 1, Section 2: Equality for all, “In their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal.”
Next Perkins read Section 3: Equal political rights, “Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality, the laws of this state affecting the political rights and privileges of its citizens shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever…”
According to the Constitution of the State of Wyoming, he went on to say (1:31:34), “Everybody gets treated equally. Everybody gets treated with respect. Everybody has got their rights and we can’t distinguish or discriminate based on any characteristic—whether it’s protected under federal law, whether it’s not protected under federal law. Our constitution is broader than that.”
After that speech Management Council members Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), Steve Harshman (R-Casper), Donald Burkhart, Jr. (R-Rawlins), Mike Greear (R-Worland), David Miller (R-Worland), Drew Perkins (R-Casper) and Ray Peterson (R-Lovell) voted to update the policy.
Voting to retain the SOGI language were John Hastert (D-Green River), Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette), James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) and John Freeman (D-Green River).
The Management Council should be commended. By its work, the Equality State remained true to her name.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.