Metro Weekly

Wyoming legislature to consider First Amendment Defense Act

Measure sets apart specific beliefs on marriage and gender that the state deems worthy of protection

Wyoming State Capitol – Photo: Babymestizo, via Wikimedia.

A state legislator in Wyoming has introduced a bill that mirrors a federal bill known as the First Amendment Defense Act, which would insulate those who cite religious beliefs as justification for discrimination from being penalized or compelled by the state to compromise their beliefs.

House Bill 135, sponsored by Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Goshen), mirrors not only the federal First Amendment Defense Act, which is still pending in Congress, but is quite similar to an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” bill that passed last year in Mississippi. A federal judge later declared the Mississippi law unconstitutional, in that it sets apart specific religious beliefs relating to human sexuality, marriage, and gender and prioritizes those over other beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment. 

HB 135 sets apart specific beliefs that it feels deserve protection from government interference: 1) that marriage is limited to a man and a woman and 2) that gender identity is fixed at birth — meaning that a person’s transgender identity is considered a behavior that can be altered.

“This in a nutshell, would allow people — and when I say people, I’m including businesses and any kind of an incorporated organization, in addition to human beings — to act on their religious beliefs,” says Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bill. “When a person acts on those beliefs, the government is prohibited from taking any action against them. And it’s a huge range of consequences that the discriminatory person is protected from. A licensed counselor or a teacher could discriminate against students or potential patients and keep their job and not be subject to discipline.”

Rho notes that the government would be unable to institute penalties against businesses or individuals, deny them any special tax credits or tax breaks, or yank their licenses in response to any instances of discrimination. Additionally, localities with pro-LGBT ordinances, like Laramie, would be rendered unenforceable so long as the discriminator insisted they were acting in accordance with their religious beliefs. Additionally, if the individual or business feels the government is trying to pressure them, they can sue for damages and get the government to recoup their legal fees.

That said, passage of the act is not certain, despite the lopsided edge that Republicans enjoy in the legislature.

“Wyoming is really interesting, because there’s a really strong libertarian streak in the state,” says Rho. “And so even though it’s a very Republican-dominated legislature — and there’s obviously some very strong social conservatives, including the group of legislators that introduced this bill — there’s also a strong group of legislators who are of the belief that government should leave people alone. And so we’re seeing a divide [among lawmakers].”

Gov. Matt Mead (R) has not yet made his position on the bill publicly known, but Rho notes that some politicians may be reticent to pass any measure that could be perceived as anti-LGBT.

“In Wyoming, they are very well aware of what has happened in recent years in states where they’ve tried to pass anti-LGBT laws, whether it’s Indiana or North Carolina,” says Rho. “Wyoming is very tourism dependent. There are many tourist sites that are important to the economy, and so they don’t want to inflict damage to that industry and the state.”

The bill has currently been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a hearing.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com