Non-Discrimination Ordinance Moves Forward

By on June 20, 2018

Town Council voted unanimously to legally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It was an emotional moment during the first reading of the non-discrimination ordinance at Monday’s Jackson Town Council meeting.

Tears brimmed in the eyes of Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson before she and council members voted 5-0 to move an ordinance forward protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination.

“It has been stated that it is a moral decision that we’re looking at tonight and for me, I am morally choosing to have a more inclusive community,” Morton-Levinson said. “I hope that in 20 years my kids don’t have to worry about discrimination for whoever they are and I hope that this step today helps that.”

The teary statement was atypical for Morton-Levinson who often appears calm and composed when addressing councilors and constituents.

“As a councilor, I try to be very even-keeled in those meetings,” Morton Levinson later told Planet Jackson Hole. “But you can’t help being caught up in the moment when you have people passionately speaking for what they care about.”

Nineteen people spoke during the public comment period—most were in favor of the ordinance that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and in public places, fining offenders up to $750 per day for the misdemeanor charge. Five people opposed the ordinance, citing religious freedom and calling it “constitutionally problematic.”

LGBTQ residents spoke about the struggles they face living in Jackson.

Andrew Munz, a PJH columnist, was among the speakers whose voice wavered with emotion. “I did not come out of the closet until I was 21 because I didn’t believe my friends or my family or my coworkers would accept me,” he said. “Wyoming, as many of us know, has a very dark history when it comes to the tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals.”

Munz pointed to the killing of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student murdered 20 years ago for being gay.

His death spurred national hate crime laws, but Wyoming still has no such law on the books. For this reason, advocates say there is a great responsibility on municipalities like Jackson to enact ordinances.

Munz also noted the suicide of Trevor O’Brien, 20, of Gillette. Two years ago, O’Brien took his own life after enduring years of bullying including hate speech keyed into the side of his car.

“It is important to remember that Matthew, Trevor and countless others around Wyoming, neighboring states, the country, and the world have endured discrimination and hardships as a result of a culture of intolerance,” Munz said.

That culture, he said, defines heterosexuality as the default and anyone who steps outside of those lines is different.

Munz discussed throwing Jackson’s first gay dance party on June 9, which drew more than 450 people, and the anxiety and fear he felt for the safety of his partygoers. “I don’t know any business, nonprofit organization or social group in Jackson Hole or Teton County that would even consider that their event could possibly put those in attendance in danger,” he said. “In the weeks leading up to the JH Pride Party, this was at the forefront of my mind.”

Others pointed to the experiences of their family or friends.

Jill Smith, senior deputy clerk for Teton County, said her adopted LGBTQ daughter would have lived a difficult life in her birth country of China. Still, “when she came out to me my first fear was how she was going to navigate a world equally with other people,” she said.

Regardless of a person’s sexuality, “I think it’s really important for all of us to feel equal and not be looked down on,” she said.

“I want my daughter to be treated like anyone else no matter who she loves.”

Those who spoke in opposition, like William Smith, said the ordinance would infringe on the freedom of religious institutions. For example, it could force a church to marry a same-sex couple, he argued. Smith also pointed to the recent Supreme Court ruling in a discrimination case in Colorado. In that case, the high court ruled in defense of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The decision is evidence that the proposed ordinance could be unconstitutional, he said. 

Smith’s diatribe incited friction in town chambers. He spoke seven minutes longer than the three-minute allotment and was met with a sharp rebuke from Mayor Pete Muldoon that included several strikes of his gavel. Muldoon snapped: “When I ask you to stop, please stop talking. Those who insist on talking after I tell them to stop” will be removed from the room, he added.

Tim Moyer, of the Emmanuel Bible Church and the Wyoming Pastors Network, traveled one hour from Thayne to address the council. He worried the ordinance would infringe on religious freedom and present government overreach. “We’re opposed to violence in any form; we are opposed to treating people in an ugly way, nevertheless our good intentions don’t always translate to good government.”

In the case of rentals, for example, he should not have to rent to someone if he doesn’t approve of that person’s “lifestyle.”

“People with good will can disagree but still be allowed to practice their faith without being forced to participate in a lifestyle that they find offensive,” Moyer said.

This was hardly Moyer’s first civic foray.

The Wyoming Pastors Network, comprised largely of religious lobbyists, has been a vocal opponent of non-discrimination legislation throughout the state. In 2015, Moyer trekked eight hours to Cheyenne to testify during a legislative hearing about SF 115, an anti-discrimination bill for gay and transgender Wyomingites, the Casper Star Tribune reported.

To address constitutionality raised by opponents like Smith and Moyer, because “this is what we do,” Sabrina King, policy director for Wyoming’s American Civil Liberties Union, spoke to the council.

The Colorado cake ruling “was a narrow decision that was based on how a Colorado commission handled that one particular baker,” she said. “It wasn’t about whether or not these ordinances are constitutional or unconstitutional.”

“What the Supreme Court did make very clear is it is up to a town like Jackson to pass an ordinance like this,” she continued. If the town council determines it is in the best interest of the town to prevent discrimination of its citizens, “it is absolutely in the purview of this local government to do that.”

King said the ordinance does not infringe on people’s freedom to practice religion or conscience, or associate with certain people, provided government treats religions with the same respect it treats the LGBTQ community. “I fully believe this town is capable of doing that,” she said.

Council members said the arguments of a handful of opponents underscored the important role such an ordinance would play.

“There’s a difference between freedom of your belief and the opportunity to impose your belief on someone else,” Councilor Don Frank said. “That distinction is addressed by the discrimination ordinance. I don’t think renting an apartment to someone who has a different belief system is complicity at all. It’s simply respect.”

Muldoon drew a historical parallel, describing the threads of racism woven deeply into America’s past. “Some of the arguments I have heard tonight are troubling. I have heard similar arguments being made by those who wanted to continue Jim Crow, who thought that laws that required us to not discriminate against our fellow human beings, our fellow Americans, were infringing somebody’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom in some way.”

Society’s most vulnerable members should be protected and will be now, Muldoon said.

The ordinance has been months in the making with the help of PFLAG’s Mark Houser who researched similar ordinances in towns such as Laramie, the only Wyoming municipality that has enacted a non-discrimination ordinance. He also mobilized residents and businesses to contact council members, show up to meetings and add their names to a petition. In the process, council members heard from dozens of people.

Morton-Levinson said she received emails, listened to public comments and has even been approached by people in the grocery store who say they do not feel safe from discrimination and want an ordinance on the books. For her, it was an easy decision. 

“What is the role of town council other than to provide safety and wellbeing for its citizens?” she said.

The ordinance will undergo two more readings before it becomes law.


About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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