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Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, right, and Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday, March 11, 2021, inside the state Capitol. The committee was considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Sweeney, House Bill 218, that would have created a category for hate crimes. Wyoming is one of only three states to not have hate crime legislation. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – After lengthy discussion of the proposal, state lawmakers decided Thursday to delay a bill aiming to combat bias-motivated crimes in Wyoming, instead moving to take up hate crime legislation as an interim topic later this year.

Sponsored by Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, House Bill 218 would establish specific civil liabilities for any actions taken against an individual or their property due to their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, among others. The legislation would also require Wyoming law enforcement officers to undergo training to identify and respond to bias-motivated crimes, and the Wyoming Attorney General’s office would have to compile an annual report on hate crimes in the state.

“I ask you – is Wyoming really The Equality State? If so, why is Wyoming one of three remaining states not to have passed hate crime legislation?” Sweeney asked members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Arkansas and South Carolina are the only other states without hate crime legislation on their books. Several people who testified during the meeting, including Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce CEO Dale Steenbergen, spoke of the need for hate crime legislation to encourage economic development throughout the state.

Nicholas Agopian, a lobbyist representing more than a dozen national companies and state organizations, including Microsoft, Walmart and the Wyoming Business Alliance, told lawmakers that corporations are keeping tabs on which states have yet to enact hate crime laws.

“When they look at what states have hate crime legislation, they see three blank spots on a map – Wyoming being one of them,” Agopian said.

HB 218 wouldn’t create any enhanced criminal penalties. Instead, judges would be able take the motivation of bias into consideration during sentencing under existing criminal penalties.

Many who testified during the meeting acknowledged that a hate crime law would only do so much to address biased behavior against particular identities, but they emphasized the proposal was a step in the right direction. Casper resident Janet de Vries told the committee that she has been called derogatory names in public due to her identity as a lesbian, and she was aware of a gay man who was physically attacked in a grocery store parking lot because of his identity.

“In order for all people to thrive, and to recruit companies and talent to our state, we must protect everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” de Vries said.

Lawmakers also heard from several students from Cody High School and the University of Wyoming, all of whom were in support of the bill. They expressed concerns about the state’s ability to attract and retain people without such a law.

Although most were supportive of the hate crime bill during the meeting, a few who testified had concerns over the legislation.

Former state lawmaker Nathan Winters, now the executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Wyoming, argued that hate crime laws “focus on the differences between us,” and he urged the committee to instead continue to enforce existing criminal penalties.

“(Hate crime laws) serve to further drive a wedge between social groups by allowing the media to focus on hate crimes between perceived social groups while prosecutors are trying to determine what actually happened and if the criteria fits,” Winters said.

Others argued the conversation on hate crimes was necessary, but they had questions about the specific bill before the committee. Sabrina King, representing the ACLU of Wyoming, told the committee that bias-motivated crimes in Wyoming require a broader conversation, including how bias is present in state agencies.

“If we are going to talk about bias in the state of Wyoming, I think we need to talk about it on both the individual level and on the agency level,” King said. “I think if we do not look at the agencies who will be implementing this law and the bias in those agencies, then I think all we are doing is sitting in a glass house and throwing rocks.”

While more than 20 people offered testimony, which was limited to two minutes per individual, members of the committee acknowledged that not every stakeholder was able to discuss the legislation during the committee’s two-hour meeting. Ultimately, the committee decided to lay the bill back, with the recommendation that hate crimes be taken up as an interim topic for the committee over the next year.

Committee chair Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said the legislation, as written, wasn’t quite ready for “prime time,” but he wanted to keep the conversation going.

“While the idea may seem obvious, that there’s an issue, and the effects may seem simplistic in only seven pages (of the bill), I think it is a highly complicated topic that will take an entire year with all the stakeholders to work out that language to get to a place where stakeholders are happy,” Olsen said.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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