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Wyoming Senate rejects LGBT anti-discrimination bill after week of successes and disappointments

Community/Meta Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

The Wyoming state Senate narrowly rejected a bill yesterday that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.  The final vote was 13-15 and came just a few days after a Senate committee voted 4-1 to advance the legislation.

LGBT advocates in Wyoming suffered two other defeats this week: on Monday, a House committee rejected a marriage equality bill in a close 4-5 vote but advanced a domestic partnerships bill 7-2.  That bill was voted down yesterday in the full House by a 24-35 vote margin.

“People think Wyoming is the ultimate conservative bastion,” Wyoming Equality Chair Jeran Artery told EqualityOnTrial in an interview.  “We made history getting it out to a floor vote.”

Despite their ultimate defeats, Artery credits the success of securing floor votes for the two pro-equality bills–despite a state legislature with the most lopsided ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the country, one in which a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality failed last year by just one vote–to three major factors.

First, the national conversation on marriage equality has changed dramatically in the last year, with wins for marriage equality at the ballot box in three states last November and two major gay rights cases set to be heard by the Supreme Court this March.  As Artery put it, “A lot of Wyoming is reflective of what’s going on nationally.”

Just as importantly, Wyoming Equality had significant support from several major national equality organizations, among them the Human Rights Campaign, which hired a lobbyist to work on the issue full-time, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The third factor is Wyoming’s libertarian streak–an essential element to securing bipartisan support for pro-equality measures in a very Republican legislature.  In most states, pro-LGBT bills are lucky to secure a handful of GOP votes; in Wyoming, all five votes for the three bills featured significant Republican support.

In fact, it was that support which Artery and the other advocates working on the bills thought would be enough to put them over the top.  “I was really disappointed about the discrimination bill,” Artery said.  “I thought that would get further than it did.”

In a whip count taken before the House vote on domestic partnerships, Wyoming Equality thought that 34 or 35 representatives would vote yes, well over the 31 needed for passage.  In the end, 24 did.

Artery has reached out by email to some of the legislators whom he expected would be yes votes but who ended up siding against the bill.  He has not heard back.

Wyoming’s legislative schedule is unusual, alternating from year to year between a 40-day regular session (as in this year) and a 20-day budget session.  During the latter, a non-budgetary bill requires supermajority support simply to be introduced, so another push for pro-equality legislation before the 2105 session is unlikely.

Of course, that means the intervening 2014 election provides opportunities to change the makeup of the legislature.  Artery says his organization will shift to a focus on candidate recruitment for 2014.  Wyoming Equality has also spoken with national LGBT legal groups, specifically the ACLU, about pursuing marriage equality rights through the courts instead of the legislature.

For now, though, Artery underscores the importance of this week’s first-ever floor votes for Wyoming.  “We lost this battle,” he said, “but I’m sure we’ll win the war.”

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