LARAMIE – House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly hadn’t anticipated controversy. She saw her bill as a cleanup of statutory language – a long-overdue update of gender references to reflect the modern realities of gay marriage and women in the workforce.
A committee meeting in Sundance proved her wrong.
Connolly, who is in a same-sex marriage, has proposed legislation that would change references to “husband and wife” to gender-neutral terms like “spouse,” “married couple” or “parents.” It would also clarify problematic pieces of Wyoming law that refer to the wife of a policeman or firefighter, as though those jobs are held only by men. Thus, the bill would clarify the law for heterosexual couples as well as same-sex ones, proponents say.
What the bill does not try to do, Connolly said, is change any state policies. It’s simply an update to reflect modern realities, including the implications of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee met Nov. 20 in Sundance to vote on whether to sponsor the legislation. At a September meeting in Lander, the same committee advanced it with a voice vote. The minutes show no public opposition. Until a few days before the meeting, Connolly expected similar silence in Sundance.
Instead, Connolly sat for more than two hours while one by one, members of the public came up, sat down next to her and testified, mostly against the bill. The bill opponents’ language, she told WyoFile almost two weeks later, was an unvarnished display of anti-gay sentiment. Throughout the public comment period, her legislative colleagues watched and largely stayed silent.
“My humanity was attacked,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
WyoFile obtained an audio recording of the public testimony from the Legislative Service Office.
The attacks started with the first speaker after Senate Chairman Cale Case, R-Lander, opened the meeting to public testimony.
“Listening to this lady here, it’s offensive to me and my wife about this language,” said Erik Akola, from outside Sundance. “It’s extremely offensive. To change husband and wife, mother and father, for a few people. When are we going to wake up in America and stop this foolishness?”
Akola introduced himself as a longtime Alaska resident who moved to Wyo-ming several years ago. “I moved here because men were men and women are women,” he said. “They’re not spouses – so to speak – they’re husbands and wives, mothers and fathers,” he said.
“It’s disgusting to listen to her drivel,” Akola said, referring to Connolly.
At that point, Case intervened. “OK,” the committee chairman said. “That could be improper, sir. Let’s not pick on other people.”
“They’re picking on us,” the Sundance resident responded. He did not directly reference Connolly again, but continued to speak against the bill.
Two hours later, the committee voted 8-6 not to sponsor the legislation.
Previous hearings had given Connolly little reason for concern heading into Sundance. The two committee chairmen – Case and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne – were cosponsoring it. The House side of the committee had already passed an earlier version during the 2017 general session, 6-3.
That session, Connolly had asked Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, to hold the bill back from the floor after deciding it needed further work.
One of the attorney’s clients, a same-sex married couple, had moved to Colorado rather than negotiate Wyoming’s statutes to claim parentage of their child, Connolly told WyoFile. Another attorney’s client was engaged in a heated child custody battle, Connolly said, and opposing counsel had used the current language to restrict her visitation.
However, the weekend before the meeting, members of the committee received emails from voters that included arguments written by an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, according to a copy of the email obtained by WyoFile.
The Scottsdale, Arizona-based group has more than 3,000 lawyers, and works to roll back or oppose legislation that creates specific protections for LGBTQ people around the world, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
ADF did not respond to a request from WyoFile to interview the purported author of the legal points, whom the memo named as Matt Sharp, senior counsel.
Connolly received a copy of the memo Saturday night, she told WyoFile. The meeting was Monday.
On Sunday, Rep. Tyler Lindholm, a Republican committee member who lives in Sundance, told Connolly there had been a post on a local community Facebook page calling people out to fight the bill, she said.
Local churches in the Sundance and Gillette areas appear to have discussed the bill with their congregations as well. Several bill opponents who spoke were pastors, and nearly all referenced religion or God. Most were from the area around Sundance and Gillette.
Public testimony “was unduly cruel”
It was unclear how many of the bill opponents speaking in Sundance had read the ADF memo. The most notable difference between the ADF argument and the testimony was several opponents did not believe gay marriage was legal in Wyoming. The bill, they said, was a backdoor attempt to legalize it.
“I can’t help but feel that there is an agenda that goes beyond just changing the language to acknowledging and making legal in this state same-gender marriage,” said Richard Prettyman, a pastor at the Central Baptist Church in Gillette.
Case told the pastor that gay marriage had been legalized by the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court is the only thing that gets to decide the Constitution, and they decided that is legal,” he said. “So it is legal in Wyoming … But churches don’t have to perform ceremonies.”
“What will next constitute a union?” asked Kim Reed, a Campbell County rancher. “A man and his sister? You know, a woman and a dog? I hate to think about what comes after this.”
For Connolly, seated next to Reed at the table, this and many other statements felt like deeply personal attacks, she said.
“There’s something so basic about our sexuality,” Connolly told WyoFile. “It’s a core, I think, of who each and every one of us is.
“These people knew nothing more about me or others who are gay, and without knowing anything else, vilified us,” she said. “They made clear that they don’t want me here, they don’t want people like me here.”
While they are not audible on the LSO recording, several participants – including Zwonitzer and Sara Burlin-game, the director of LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality – told WyoFile at various moments during public testimony members of the crowd called out “amen,” as if at a church gathering.
“It was unduly cruel,” said Rep. Patrick Sweeney, a Casper Republican.
Throughout the testimony, Connolly largely stayed quiet. Today, she’s torn by the decision not to speak up, she said.
“Do I stand up and scream, ‘How dare you?’” she asked. “‘How dare you insult me like this?’ Which is what I wanted to do … ‘How dare you talk to me, about me like this and think it’s OK. You have just attacked my humanity and you think it’s OK. It’s not.’”
Doing so would have broken legislative decorum, she said.
“Instead, what I did is what I do,” she said. “I’m a legislator. I did my job, and I did my job the best way I know how.”
Case has no illusions about the nature of the testimony. “They were just anti-gay and just saying it was repulsive and this was their chance to push back,” he said. But other than the clear personal attack from the first speaker, he didn’t think he should intervene.
“I think, as legislators, we have to be pretty hard-skinned and accept most public testimony,” he told WyoFile. “It’s a democracy; people have a right to speak.”
Zwonitzer said he thinks the fury of the testimony scared several lawmakers into changing their votes. The bill was not controversial until ADF got involved, he said.
Rep. Dan Furphy, a Laramie Republican, had voted for the bill last session, when the House committee passed it on. So had Rep. Jim Blackburn, a Cheyenne Republican. Both voted against it in Sundance.
Bill proponents said they believed they had the support of Sen. Tara Nethercott, a Cheyenne Republican, after the Lander meeting. Nether-cott voted against the bill in Sundance.
In an interview, the senator said she did believe pieces of the statute needed to be updated. However, “before that happens, it’s important that the public understand that rights aren’t being expanded, nor are they being taken away,” she said.
Had the meeting been held in Laramie or Cheyenne, Zwonitzer said, “you would’ve seen a completely different segment of the population come in, and Furphy and Nethercott would’ve voted for it.”
Fight or flight
Despite the vote in Sun-dance, the statutory gender reference bill can still be brought to the upcoming budget session by any individual legislator. It’s a difficult road – bills need a two-thirds vote on the House or Senate floor to even be introduced during this session.
Connolly, however, is undeterred. She will try to introduce the bill, she said.
“Of course they’re not going to win,” she said. “By what? Shaming me into thinking that I’m not going to do my job, that I’m going to run around with my tail between my legs?”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.