What kind of bill would legalize discrimination? HB 135

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The Drake's Take

Source: What kind of bill would legalize discrimination? – News Columns | WyoFile

What kind of bill would legalize discrimination?

by Kerry Drake | JANUARY 24, 2017

I have to give props to the religious right. When they write a religious freedom bill they cover all the bases and make it even more objectionable than many thought possible.

House Bill 135, the “Government Non-Discrimination Act,” actually gives state and local governments, plus homophobic individuals, the right to discriminate against the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered population.

The 64th Wyoming Legislature has been swimming in a sea of bad bills, including ones that would take public lands out of public hands, eliminate gun-free zones, and adopt extreme anti-abortion measures. But HB135 is one of the worst. It’s sponsored by Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R, HD-5, Lingle).

Steinmetz’s measure is similar to other “religious freedom” bills Wyoming has previously rejected. There’s good reason for people to be worried this session, however, because the House has passed these bills in past sessions and the chamber’s number of far-right members has increased. This reality puts a lot of pressure on the Senate to kill these monstrosities. Who knows what could happen this year?

There has been some acceptance of gays and lesbians among conservatives since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages. Perhaps that’s because they learned nothing has changed in their own lives just because a gay couple down the street was finally able to legalize their marriage after 25 years together.

Others, though, will never accept same-sex marriage and have been stewing about it for the past two years, plotting to find a way to make their discrimination against it legal. They mistakenly think they’ve found a way, and so much more, in HB135.

The fundamental principle behind the bill is that people and business owners who have religious beliefs and moral convictions against the LGBT community have the right to legally show their disgust by discriminating against them. In a new twist, the bill would forbid state or local government, or any board, agency, department, or institution from doing anything about it.

Opponents I’ve talked to are furious about this bill and call it the worst piece of anti-LGBT legislation ever introduced in Wyoming. I agree, because proposals simply to ban same-sex marriages by only recognizing the union of a man and woman generally stopped at that injustice. This bill goes even further.

It’s an insidious, dangerous bill. Other states have passed similar legislation, though not as extreme as this one.

Among the most extreme bills

Rose Saxe of the national ACLU, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, described HB135 as “among the most extreme anti-LGBT bills introduced in the nation. She said its impact would be sweeping and it would authorize widespread discrimination by homophobic “religious” government workers.

“Laramie’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance would be unenforceable, and potentially even illegal,” Sabrina King, new executive director of the ACLU’s Wyoming chapter, wrote in a statement last week. “No other city would be allowed to enact non-discrimination protections. County clerks would be allowed to deny same-sex couples a marriage license, and would be able to do so without consequence.”

King described other ways the law might be used. “A doctor would be able to decline care for the child of a same-sex couple, and could keep her or his license. State contractors or grantees that provide essential social services, such as a homeless shelter or counseling agency, could turn away LGBT people and keep their state funding.”

And this is unbelievable, but it could happen if this bill becomes law: It would be legal if a firefighter refused to aid a same-sex couple! If a firefighter’s boss tried to compel the firefighter live up to his or her professional code of conduct and render aid, the firefighter could actually sue the fire department and seek “damages.”

Exactly how do state, local government or other entities know when a person’s religious convictions and moral beliefs rise to the level they can discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered individuals and couples at will? Do investigators interview neighbors, co-workers and clergy? Hook the person up to a polygraph machine? Look deep into their eyes to see if they can spot a soul inside?

At its core, this bill is wholly un-American and obviously written by legislators or lobbyists who have no idea what protections are guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The “religious freedom” that supporters of HB135 say they’re guaranteed by the Constitution does not mean that one religion has special protections not guaranteed to others. On the contrary, the First Amendment prohibits “the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, ensuring that there is no prohibition on the free exercise of religion.” That means all religions.

What HB135 backers want is for the federal government and all others to recognize that the religious right’s beliefs are superior to all others.

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Most people would look at the title of this bill, the Government Non-Discrimination Act, and conclude it would protect a person from discrimination — like a person refused service because of their sexual orientation. But what it actually does is protect the rights of the person who has discriminated against a LGBT individual because of their religious belief that only one man and one women can marry.

But if members of the religious right were actually worthy of such protections, the obvious question is how can they justify, under their own belief system, discriminating against others?

Regarding citizens with “religious convictions,” HB135 states that this

protected class of people will be allowed to legally discriminate against the LGBT population and the government cannot punish them by assessing any additional tax, penalty or payment.

And there are more protections: The government and its subdivisions cannot “withhold, reduce, exclude, terminate or otherwise deny any state grant, contract, subcontract, cooperative agreement, loan, license, certification, accreditation or employment.”

I’ve got a real problem with that last one, since we live in a state where it’s perfectly legal for an employer to fire a worker who openly displays a wedding photo with his or her same-sex partner.

One group of citizens is fired because of their sexual orientation, while another’s religious beliefs are so extreme it’s legal for them to openly discriminate against another group? And if the state doesn’t let them be so intolerant, they can sue for non-existent damages under this bill.

Opponents in the Equality State can’t just assume a majority of legislators will realize how detrimental all aspects of this bill will be to our state. Complacency and disbelief are two of the ways progressives get steamrolled on so many issues.

Twenty-one states have some type of religious freedom laws on their books. Let’s make sure Wyoming isn’t the 22nd.

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About the Author

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.


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