Opinion: No more excuses, legislators: Wyo needs hate-crime law

Opinion By Kerry Drake, WyoFile

I’ve watched Wyoming lawmakers debate hate crime bills for three decades without moving the needle a scintilla toward passage.

After seeing the Joint Judiciary Committee discuss the issue at a meeting in Casper last week, my dismay at the lack of progress has turned to fear that Wyoming may actually be going backward.

Intelligent, impassioned and at times gut-wrenching testimony was met with insults, impatience and a lack of empathy from some veteran lawmakers.

A handful of tired conservative canards made predictable appearances too.

Like this one: “Is there any data that suggests hate-crime legislation causes reverse discrimination?”

No, a robust hate-crimes law wouldn’t turn the state into the thought police, explained Jeremy Shaver, assistant regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Denver. He noted that both hate speech and religious beliefs are constitutionally protected, and no one is going after them.

“What we’re talking about is when somebody crosses the line, from believing something to actually committing a crime — arson, assault, vandalism — and harming another person,” Shaver said.

Rep. Pat Sweeney (R-Casper), whose bias-motivated crime bill failed to gain support in the most recent session, said he is passionate about the issue because hate crimes “not only harm an individual but also the group of people who share that characteristic, and the community at large.

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“They send the message [to victims] that ‘you are not welcome here, be afraid — we are better than you,’” Shaver explained.

Of course the committee shouldn’t have to be reminded of that. One of the most egregious examples happened here. In 1998 University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was openly gay, was brutally killed by two Laramie men.

Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead; he succumbed five days later in a Fort Collins hospital. News of his murder shocked the world, sparked an international call to protect LGBTQ rights and sent a crystal clear message to the LGBTQ community about just how welcome they are in Wyoming. In 2009, a federal hate-crime law bearing Shepard’s name was signed into law.

Amber Pollock, a queer-identifying Casper City Council member, told the committee Shepard’s legacy is something Wyoming policymakers have since actively tried to ignore.

“We have worked hard to come up with alternative narratives that absolve our people, our culture and our state of any responsibility for the hate-motivated murder of Matthew Shepard,” she said.

Wyomingites say it’s time to move on, Pollock said, but that would require some amount of reconciliation. “You can’t heal a wound if you don’t clean it out first,” she said.

Today, Wyoming joins Arkansas and South Carolina as the only three states without a comprehensive hate-crime law.

Some groups, most notably the ACLU, argue that Wyoming has had a state hate-crimes statute on the books for 64 years. But others, including the ADL and the Brennan Center for Justice, maintain the law falls short. Why, Shaver asks, aren’t Wyoming prosecutors using it to go after offenders?

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Violating the statute is only a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine up to $750.

Some who testified said finally passing a true hate-crime bill will show the rest of the world — especially the business community — that Wyoming welcomes diversity.

“I’ve sat and watched this Legislature for the last three or four years sit and wring their hands and cry in their soup because we are in trouble as a state if we don’t figure out some ways to improve the economy,” said Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

Steenbergen said the Wyoming Business Council told him that every company it has tried to recruit to the state has asked why it hasn’t addressed the hate-crime issue. Industries want their LGBTQ employees to be welcomed to a new working environment, not living in fear.

Steenbergen said he is also a member of a military-civilian advisory task force, and military leaders say Wyoming needs to help their lesbian and gay soldiers.

It was apparently unwelcome advice for Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), Judiciary co-chairman, who retorted, “I’ve been wringing my hands for three or four years and spending my time and countless hours away from my family trying to make Wyoming a better place.”

“I don’t know what the Legislature is going to do at the end of the day,” Olsen told Steenbergen. “But apparently if this is the golden egg that solves the economic problems of the state of Wyoming, I’m going to make sure we have an appropriation for a big ol’ gold statue of you on the Capitol grounds.”

But the meeting’s nadir was a lawmaker’s response to a Casper mother’s emotional testimony about what happened to her lesbian daughter and young friends after a recent PRIDE event. She said other teens surrounded them, making crude gestures and hurling homophobic insults.

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When she went to intervene, the woman said, one of the girls assaulted her and knocked the phone from her hand. The police were called, but she said the officer told her there was nothing he could do and left, refusing her plea to escort them to safety.

“As we tried to leave, the mob of students swarmed us again, took my car keys, our bags and shoved us around,” the mother said. When the police were later contacted, she said, they refused to send anyone.

“You’re running short on time,” Judiciary Co-chairman Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), who had set a three-minute limit per person, curtly reminded her. “Just wrap it up.”

The woman tearfully related that her daughter had tried to commit suicide a few days later and was now in the hospital.

“She doesn’t know who to turn to, because there are no laws to protect these children and this community,” her mother said. “We need to do better than this.”

Yes, we do. And it starts with respect for the public’s ideas from the leadership of the committee assigned to study whether Wyoming needs a hate-crime law.

There’s ample evidence that it does — both in the testimony given in Casper and the mountain of material lawmakers have sifted through and largely ignored during the past 30 years.

Ultimately, the committee voted to draft two bills: one to update the 1957 anti-discrimination law, and the second to improve Wyoming law enforcement agencies’ abysmal record of reporting hate crimes to the FBI. Neither will mandate any enhanced penalties or even consider making any violation of the statute an automatic felony.

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No more excuses, please. Let’s just wrap up this painfully stalled, vital work and present it to the public and the entire Legislature next year.

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.