CHEYENNE – An effort to offer new legal protections to Cheyenne’s LGBTQ residents may be delayed until next year as city councilmen wait for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Colorado religious freedom case before introducing their ordinance.
The proposed ordinance, which is still under review by the city attorney’s office, is intended to mirror one Laramie passed in 2015. It would make it illegal to fire employees or refuse to provide housing or other services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But Councilmen Richard Johnson and Scott Roybal said some of their colleagues were wary about casting votes before the high court rules on whether a Colorado baker had a right to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
The court will be weighing whether Colorado’s public accommodations law, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, infringes on religious freedom.
If the court rules in favor of the Colorado baker, Johnson said, “then all nondiscrimination ordinances across the country could be invalid or need to be rewritten, and that worried council members who were on the fence to begin with.”
Johnson said that prospect didn’t bother him personally, but enough council members were undecided about the controversial issue that a delay made sense.
At least one council member and the mayor have endorsed waiting in recent weeks.
“With the Supreme Court looking at this issue, now is not the time to act,” Mayor Marian Orr told a Ward II town hall crowd July 31.
Councilman Dicky Shanor added that the city had already expressed support for LGBTQ residents with a resolution supporting equal rights back in November.
“We reached a robust compromise,” he said. “To reopen the issue when the Supreme Court has said it’s considering that case would be a disservice to the community.”
But Sara Burlingame, education director at the advocacy group Wyoming Equality, disagreed.
She said the November resolution provided no real protection for LGBTQ residents and noted that the proposed ordinance would have a clause allowing parts of it to stand even if other parts were declared unconstitutional.
That means that even if the court said compelling business owners to serve same-sex weddings offended religious freedom, employment and housing protections would remain in place.
She also said Cheyenne was putting off an opportunity to attract talented workers to its economy.
“It simply doesn’t make sense not to offer LGBT(Q) workers and families the protections they have in other states,” she said.
Eighteen states, including Colorado and Utah, have added sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Stephen Feldman, a University of Wyoming constitutional law professor, said a decision in favor of religious freedom over Colorado’s public accommodations law would pose real danger to all components of nondiscrimination legislation across the country.
“It would by implication invalidate similar legislation (to Colorado’s law) and strengthen the religious right’s objections to it,” he said.
Councilman Rocky Case, who supports a nondiscrimination ordinance, emphasized that the delay did not signal defeat. Instead, he said, it would allow the court to offer legal clarity and give supporters an opportunity to craft an ordinance that will satisfy both sides of the issue.
He said he hoped attaching civil penalties to the ordinance – city misdemeanors usually carry criminal penalties of a $750 fine and six months in jail – would help bridge the divide.
The city attorney’s office hasn’t yet said whether that’s possible.