Wyoming Senate Creates Religious Exemption in LGBT Protections

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Wyoming Senate Creates Religious Exemption in LGBT Protections

Teddy Wilson

Wyoming lawmakers in the state senate passed a bill Wednesday that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's non-discrimination employment laws, although religious companies and organizations will still be legally allowed to discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

Wyoming lawmakers in the state senate passed a bill Wednesday that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s non-discrimination employment laws, although religious companies and organizations will still be legally allowed to discriminate against the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

SF 115 was passed by a 24-6 vote, with all six votes against the bill coming from Republican lawmakers. Along with protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment practices, the bill includes these protections in the juror selection process, child care, and other public systems.

Senate Vice President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said that the bill struck a balance between preserving religion-based discrimination in Wyoming and ensuring some level of equal protection for Wyoming’s LGBT community, according to reporting by the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

“This isn’t a life that they have chosen because it’s not an easy road,” Perkins said. “And one of the reasons they do need protection is it’s not just a percentage of an increase that you find (being discriminated against); it’s multiples.”

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An amendment that would have exempted small businesses from the section of the bill regarding workplace discrimination was defeated by a 19-11 senate vote. The amendment was offered by state Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange), and would have exempted businesses that employ fewer than 15 people.

Some lawmakers who voted in favor of the legislation pointed to personal relationships they have with members of the LGBT community, and others said creating a welcoming environment had become an economic imperative.

“They look at our laws and our statutes and say, ‘Are they going to be welcoming to our employees? Right now, with the passing of this, we’re close. We’re really close,” said Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette), according to the Tribune-Eagle.

The bill includes a religious exemption that prevents the law from applying to “any of the employment practices of a religious corporation, association, educational institution or society which has as its primary purpose religious ritual or worship or the teaching or spreading of religious doctrine or belief.”

The Wyoming legislature is dominated by Republicans, who hold a 26-4 majority in the senate and a 51-9 majority in the house.

The move to protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the Republican controlled state comes in stark contrast to another move by a GOP governor this week.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed an executive order Tuesday that rescinded discrimination protections for state employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity, reversing a 2007 executive order signed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) has signaled that he may be receptive to the LGBT protections.

“When it comes to people working, I’m in favor of people working, able bodied people who want to work and are capable of doing a job,” Mead said during the KROE Public Pulse program. “I just don’t think to discrimination against them and to put them on unemployment based upon that [sexual orientation or gender identity], I think that’s a problem.”

Mead has also received criticism from fellow Republicans for not appealing a federal judge’s order that allowed same-sex marriage in the state.

Supporters of the Wyoming legislation were pleased with its passage and optimistic about its potential to become law.

“I’m extremely excited, and we obviously know there’s still quite a journey for this bill. But I just think it really sends a tremendous message to Wyoming and the rest of the country that we are open for business and we don’t discriminate,” Jeran Artery, of Wyoming Equality, told the Tribune-Eagle.

SF 115 now moves to the house, and if passed, will head to the governor’s desk.