THE BUZZ 2: Quest for Equality Ensues

By on March 8, 2017

After the state legislature shot down a non-discrimination bill, local groups are taking the matter into their own hands.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In February, the Wyoming Senate voted down Senate File 153, an Employment  Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would have protected employees from being fired, demoted, or mistreated on the basis of their sexual or gender identity. The vote was 13-17. The defeat of this bill has raised questions about the influence of money in state politics, and about the role of local governments in ensuring protections for their citizens.

Without a state bill to protect Wyomingites in the workplace, groups across the state, including in Jackson, are organizing for local legislation in its place. “Now that we’ve seen these defeats at the state level, we have to take care of our own,” explained Mark Houser, longtime valley advocate for equality and coordinator of Jackson’s PFLAG.

Sara Burlingame agrees. She is the outreach and education coordinator for Wyoming Equality, an organization that advocates for LGBT rights, and called the failure of the bill a huge disappointment. “The legislature spent two weeks arguing about where people should be allowed to go to the bathroom, yet they didn’t pass the ENDA, which municipalities had given them a mandate to pass … They missed an opportunity to do the will of the people.” Now, Burlingame says local advocates and electeds will have to “do in patchwork and piece meal what the state legislature had a mandate to do.”

In 2015, Wyoming legislators came close to passing a different nondiscrimination bill, Senate File 115, which was far more expansive. In addition to providing workplace protections, it would have addressed housing and the right to service. The bill passed in the Senate 24-6, but failed in the House 26-33.

Given the support for SF 115, Burlingame expected that this year’s bill would make it farther: “We were much more modest in our goals … I will be honest and say we didn’t think it had a chance of passing in the House, but it was very disappointing to see it fail in the Senate, to see people who are our friends voting against the rights of LGBTQ Wyomingites.”

When dollars decide equality

Some Senators who had previously voted for nondiscrimination legislation refused to support this year’s ENDA. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, for example, supported the nondiscrimination bill in 2015. This year, however, Burlingame noted that “Kinskey took to the floor to rail against it. He said that the only reason this legislation was being passed was so that people who were fired for good cause could turn around and say they’d been fired due to discrimination. It was painful for LGBT folks represented by Kinskey to hear him denigrate them that way.”

Burlingame suggests wealthy donors in the state might explain Kinskey’s change of heart, people who would refuse to finance Republicans that support nondiscrimination legislation. Daniel Brophy, for example, is one of the largest backers of Wyoming Republicans. According to WyoFile journalist Andrew Graham, Brophy bought a home in Wilson in 2011, and has played a role in state politics since. In 2016, he was the single biggest donor in the primary elections. His wife matches most of his donations. Therefore, though the cap on individual donating in the primaries is $1,500, most candidates he supported received $3,000. In total, the Brophys spent almost $75,000 in the primaries.

Though Brophy did not respond to interview requests, Graham compiled some of his political beliefs from letters to newspapers and comments online. Brophy has said that gun free zones attract murderers, that Medicaid expansion would be catastrophic for the state, and that he does not approve of the homosexual lifestyle.

He seems to donate to legislators based on how they score on the Wyoming Liberty Index, which tracks representatives’ votes on issues they see as pertaining to liberty. In 2015, the Liberty Index gave SF 115, the anti-discrimination bill, a negative grade, calling it a threat to liberty. Those who score high on the Index receive donations from Brophy, those who score low do not. As reported by Graham: “of the top 20 ranked candidates on the Liberty Index, nearly every one who faced a primary challenger received a donation from the Brophys.”

This has created pressure for Republican candidates: “Incumbent legislators who scored highly on the Liberty Index received their donations, while legislators who had scored poorly faced opponents suddenly flush with cash.”

Can Jackson learn from Laramie?

As the state political climate becomes increasingly fraught, local groups are taking the reins. Last week, Houser organized a meeting to discuss moving forward locally. This issue is urgent, he says: “We can’t wait another two years for the Senate to vote in a budget session.”

Matt Stech, community prevention professional for the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming, helped organize the meeting. Protecting those who face discrimination could be a life or death matter, Stech said. He points to recent research correlating social equality laws with lower suicide rates. “It protects actual lives to stand up for rights, to protect young people from feeling rejected from community.” Those who face discrimination need recourse and resources at home, he added.

As reported by Forbes, a 17-year-long study looking at 47 states revealed that where same-sex marriage was legal, teenage suicide rates decreased. Suicide is the second greatest cause of death amongst teens. About 17 percent of heterosexual teens have thought about suicide, while 43 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual, and 50 percent of transgender youth, have considered it.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in the nation. In this context, state and local representatives have the responsibility to do what they can to protect their citizens. Houser believes that it is important for people to see that “the community is taking steps to affirm who they are.”

Laramie is the only town in the state with a nondiscrimination ordinance. Jackson has passed workplace protections for town employees, but there are no requirements for other employers. In December of 2015, the town council had the opportunity to pass a non-discrimination ordinance that would have covered all workers, but town attorney, Audrey Cohen-Davis, recommended the issue be pursued through a resolution instead. The council voted unanimously for the resolution. However, unlike an ordinance, a resolution is not binding and not enforceable.

Davis and her team recommended that the Town pursue a resolution rather than an ordinance because the Town might not be equipped for the latter. “The resolution is a policy statement, but if the town council enacts an ordinance it’s a law and they have to be able to enforce it.”

Currently, discrimination complaints are pursued as civil issues. Cohen-Davis said that passing an ordinance would require a local criminal court to handle complaints. Because the town currently only handles civil issues, a new entity would have to be created to manage those complaints.

In Laramie, however, a different scenario has played out. Mayor Andi Summerville told PJH that Laramie did not create a new court. Instead, they managed it so that complaints would go through the city attorney and municipal court. “We didn’t want to create more structures we didn’t have or couldn’t afford, so we’re working through the structures we already have.” She says that so far, passing the ordinance has added no additional burden to city employees. “Rather, it’s started a question about what our city and employees value, and showed that Laramie expects all to be equal.”

Though she did not elaborate, Cohen-Davis said she and her team still had concerns about the methods implemented in Laramie, and would not recommend replicating them in Jackson.

During the November 2016 election, candidates for town council said they would support an ordinance. At a candidate forum, now Mayor Pete Muldoon, said: “I understand the Town may have to spend money to implement enforcement, but I believe sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is a violation of civil rights, and I don’t see how we can tell community members that yes, we believe their civil rights are being violated but sorry, we won’t do anything about it because justice costs money.” Council members Hailey Morton Levinson and Jim Stanford echoed Muldoon’s sentiments.

Now that HB 153 has failed, locals are looking to their town officials to follow up on their commitments. PJH

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