Town’s nondiscrimination ordinance moves forward

March 22, 2018 GMT

Since 2001 the town of Jackson and the Wyoming Legislature have returned again and again to debate ordinances and laws prohibiting discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Still, neither has been able to put a law into place.

In 2014 the town did approve a nondiscrimination resolution, becoming the first community in Wyoming to do so. But unlike an ordinance, a resolution is merely a formal expression of an elected body’s opinion, not an enforceable law.

So Mayor Pete Muldoon proposed that the resolution be elevated to an ordinance after hearing from constituents who claim to have been fired or evicted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

After months of research town staff presented the Jackson Town Council with options for an ordinance Monday night.

With what it called broad support from the community, the council directed staff to research the legalities of a nondiscrimination ordinance and to begin drafting language for the council to review at a town workshop before bringing it to first reading.

Councilman Bob Lenz was the lone councilor concerned that a nondiscrimination ordinance would overload the town’s staff and be too expensive for the town to enforce.

“It’s admirable and it’s desirable, but can we afford it?” he asked. “With this ordinance you’d have to create — we’d have to create — a civil division in our legal department.

“You’re going to have to hire new lawyers if it’s challenged,” he said, “and you’re going to have to hire an investigative staff along with it. It’s totally beyond the bandwidth of this town, and I don’t see how we can afford it.”

For Muldoon the cost was a secondary concern.

“I’ve had people come and tell me they’ve been mistreated and discriminated against in housing and in jobs because they’re gay,” Muldoon said. “If we think that people’s civil rights are being violated in the town of Jackson that’s the No. 1 budget priority.”

Andi Summerville, the mayor of Laramie, which became the first town in Wyoming to enact a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015, said Laramie has not had a single complaint filed and that the community has rallied around the ordinance since it was passed.

“When we were considering the ordinance we also had a conversation regarding the potential costs,” Summerville said.

“As the first community to enact such an ordinance,” she said, “it was almost impossible to predict how many cases we would see, but we decided we would jump in and allow some flexibility to adjust as we keep an eye on it.”

Instead of creating a new civil division in the city attorney’s office, or hiring an investigator, Laramie structured its ordinance to allow the city to hire outside counsel to investigate and even prosecute someone if a discrimination case came forth.

But if the problem is more pervasive in Jackson than Laramie, Town Manager Bob McLaurin said, the town would have to move money around and possibly even reduce some services.

Another concern raised by the town’s legal staff, and seconded by the Rev. David Bott of Redeemer Lutheran Church, was that the ordinance might violate the First Amendment.

Several such cases are being heard around the country, including one before the U.S. Supreme Court about a Christian baker in Colorado who refused his services to a gay couple looking for a wedding cake.

Bott believes the Colorado case is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“A nondiscrimination act is institutionalized discrimination of religion,” he said. “As a Bible-believing Christian and an American citizen, I am opposed to anyone being forced to perform tasks, especially in the public square, which goes against their religious convictions.”

Bott also noted several examples from around the country where businesses were “nearly fined out of business for practicing their religious beliefs,” due to a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Though Summerville said a few religious groups opposed the nondiscrimination ordinance in Laramie, the Laramie Town Council decided that “if you’re open to the public you’re open to the public; you don’t get to pick and choose,” she said.

After the ordinance was approved, Summerville said, opposition quickly dissipated when people saw it would not overly affect their lives. Once the controversy died down the ordinance clearly had a positive impact on the community, she said, one she believes more communities around the state should be pursuing.

“Laramie is a little different because Matthew Shepard was murdered here, and there is a negative outside connotation that often gets applied to Laramie,” she said. “But the people in the community have been very happy to have this and tout it as one of their strong vales.

“It comes up in trying to recruit businesses to Laramie, and Wyoming in general,” she said. “It comes up with students at the university who want to feel safe and feel paid attention to. As the pilot community for this we’re very happy to hear so many communities around the state having this conversation and starting to bring it to the forefront.”