THE BUZZ: Civil Rights Debate Unfolds

By on March 21, 2018

Town council moves forward with a non-discrimination ordinance but not without public and political opposition

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A non-discrimination ordinance that would protect Jackson’s LGBTQ community is one step closer to becoming law, but critics might ask councilors to put a price on civil rights.

Town councilors voted 3-1 to draft the ordinance, and, responding to Councilor Bob Lenz’s opposition, also asked staff to estimate the cost and resources such an ordinance would entail—probably more than the town can afford, Lenz argued.

“It’s admirable, it’s desirable,” Lenz said. “Don’t see where you can afford it, no matter how much you want it. It’s very very time consuming, very very expensive, and very very drawn out.”

“There’s probably a very good reason why the state of Wyoming doesn’t have it in its statute.”

Indeed, sexual orientation and gender identity are still not protected classes under state law. Only 20 states offer such protections. But Wyoming has a particularly ugly history when it comes to protecting its LGBTQ community. The state still wears the scar of Matthew Shepard’s murder, now one of the more famous homophobic hate crimes in history, and scored well below national average on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Municipal Equality Index.” Jackson, often considered the “blue dot in a red sea,” received a score of 18 last year—out of 100. The national average is 59.

Marriage equality in 2015 was a nationwide victory for the LGBTQ community—but it was just the beginning, said PFLAG Jackson coordinator Mark Houser.

“People thought that was the end of the game, when really it’s only the beginning of the journey,” Houser said. And what good is marriage equality if its beneficiaries are still facing discrimination?

“Now, you can be married on Saturday, post pictures to social media on Sunday, and be fired on Monday without any recourse,” Houser said.

And Wyoming is actually getting more regressive about anti-discrimination laws. A statewide ordinance was narrowly defeated in 2015—it overwhelmingly passed in the senate, then died in the house by just seven votes. But similar legislation in 2017 died in the Senate—the same Senate.

“It was a very significant shift, without a corresponding shift in membership of the Senate,” Houser said. “The state is moving away from taking on this issue.”

So far, Laramie is the only city in Wyoming to legally protect its LGBTQ residents. Its city council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2015.

Casper just recently passed a non-discrimination resolution. Jackson already has such a resolution, also passed in 2015. But a resolution is non-binding. It carries no legal weight. It’s more of a proclamation of how people should behave. An ordinance, meanwhile, is law. Under a non-discrimination ordinance, there would be legal repercussions for discriminating against a person in a public domain—housing, employment, etc.

The problem, Lenz said, is such cases are hard to prove. They often turn into the accuser’s word against the accused. And why fix a problem before understanding its scope?

“The question is how big is the problem?” Lenz said. “I don’t know how big the problem is, but I know that when it comes to paying for it, it’s way beyond the means of our budget.”

Of course, part of the reason no one can know the scope of the problem with certainty is because there are currently no legal, codified ways to document such discrimination. “Without the instrument in place, people are not able to document discrimination that they’ve experienced,” Houser said. The only evidence is anecdotal. An ordinance would offer instrumentation.

And resources will only be stretched, Mayor Pete Muldoon said, if an ordinance brings an influx of discrimination suits—which is just further evidence that there is a problem.

“I doubt this is going to destroy our budget,” Muldoon said. “But even if it does, there are lots of things in the budget that are less important to me than people’s civil rights … If we think people’s civil rights are being violated in Jackson, that’s my top budget priority.”

Freedom to Discriminate?

Muldoon also took a stab at the religious community, select members of which have opposed the ordinance on the basis of religious freedom. He referenced emails and public comment he has received from people arguing such an ordinance would “prevent certain religious denominations from discriminating against LGBTQ people.”

One such faith leader was in the room. Reverend David Bott, a pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, sat in the crowd and bit his tongue at Muldoon’s remarks. Monday’s afternoon workshop did not allow public comment, but Bott took an opportunity to make a comment at the beginning of the evening council meeting. Religious people are not looking to “discriminate” against LGBTQ people, he said. He’s just against anyone being forced to do anything in a public sphere that goes against their religious conviction.

But the line between discrimination and religious freedom is fine. Right now, the Supreme Court is trying to draw it. A Colorado baker’s refusal to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding resulted in a lawsuit that has made it all the way to the Capitol Hill. The court is expected to make a decision in June, and the ruling will either thicken or erase the line between religious and artistic freedom, and discrimination.

What’s in a Law?

Laws carry symbolic power, too, Houser and Muldoon agreed. “There’s value in an ordinance that says, ‘We expect you not to do it,” Muldoon said. “It” meaning to discriminate.

Psychologically, laws that protect and give rights to LGBTQ people have been linked to fewer youth suicide attempts. A 2017 JAMA Pediatrics study found that high school suicide attempts decreased by seven percent in states that passed same-sex marriage legislation (before the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalized it nationwide). Among LBGTQ high school students, suicide attempts decreased by 14 percent.

“I see the ordinance as being multi-layered,” Houser said. Actual legislative power is one layer. “But even more powerful is the message that it sends to the community.” It tells members of the LGBTQ community that they are cared for, acknowledged and protected, Houser said.

The motion passed 3-1 with Lenz the sole voice of opposition; Councilor Don Frank was absent from Monday’s meeting.

“Ultimately we wish people didn’t discriminate in general, but we know that has happened,” Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson said.

“Nothing I’ve read identified fiscal impacts that seem too much to overcome,” Councilman Jim Stanford said. “A broad swath of the community has come to us and asked for this. To me, that suggests that the problem might be greater than some folks might ascertain.”

“It’s up to you people where you want to spend your money or your time,” Lenz said.

The ordinance still has a long journey ahead of it. There is still language to define, and nuances to work through—Stanford’s amendment to include immigration status as a protected class was voted down in the interest of keeping it simple. The ordinance town staff will draft will include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes.

Monday’s motion was just to draft an ordinance, and revisit it in another workshop. Then the council will have to vote to send the draft to first reading. Then it will have to pass three ordinance readings.

Houser is optimistic about the “momentum” of support he has gained locally. Now, he said, he will keep working “to make the council aware that there’s widespread support of this ordinance.”

“It will only enhance the viability of people seeing Jackson as an affirming place to start a business, live, work, and be their authentic selves.”


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