GILLETTE, Wyo. — An ordinance seeking to establish penalties for criminal acts perpetrated due to bias, hate or discrimination narrowly passed its first reading by the Gillette City Council on Tuesday.
If it passes two more readings by the council in the coming weeks, the ordinance would prohibit people from injuring, threatening to injure or inciting violence against people or their property based on their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or disability, according to the City of Gillette.
During the council’s meeting on May 2, more than 30 people on both sides of the issue stood to express their views concerning the ordinance during a public hearing opened by Mayor Shay Lundvall, with the council hearing both from residents who support it and those who don’t.
Following the public hearing, the ordinance passed with Councilmembers Heidi Gross, Nathan McLeland, Billy Montgomery and Jim West casting votes in favor of it with others, including Lundvall, voting against.
West, who said he received dozens of comments from his constituents regarding the ordinance leading up to the May 2 meeting, pointed out that there are already examples of anti-hate policies in play in Campbell County — policies that prevent bullying in schools.
He said Gillette has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, which could be tied to bullying, and that he wouldn’t want his children going to school and getting picked on every day to the point where something bad may happen.
“I just want to say that we judge people all the time, but it’s really God’s right to judge,” he said, encouraging the residents of Gillette to love their neighbors. “We can all have our own opinion, but we need to be respectful of each other’s God-given rights of being safe and personable.”
McLeland said that he’s examined the ordinance in detail to ensure that it does not infringe on the people’s right to free speech; he referenced an explanation of the ordinance’s intended purpose by City Attorney Sean Brown, who stated speech in and of itself is not enough for prosecution under the ordinance.
“It always requires more than just saying something to someone or making someone feel bad,” McLeland said. “[The ordinance] is narrowly tailored to make sure that people are protected and their constitutional rights are respected.”
He said that the ordinance will send a message that Gillette is still the welcoming community that accepted his parents and others who made their home here after leaving other communities.
Gross expressed her belief that Gillette residents need to be civil and respectful in how they treat each other; she encouraged them to adhere to a golden rule that she’s striven to live her life by, to treat others with kindness and in the wayshe would want to be treated.
“And five years ago, I would have said we don’t need this and Gillette, we are a great community, but I have seen so many things the last couple of years that’s just saddened me,” Gross said, “and I go back to thinking, what is the kind of community that I want my children to stay in and my grandchildren to live in?”
Montgomery said that he feels it is the council’s duty to make sure Gillette is a place where people feel welcome and safe, a place where they can pursue their happiness.
“I feel like this ordinance would help bring that about and maybe settle things down a little bit,” Montgomery said, imploring his fellow councilmembers to join him in voting in favor of the ordinance.
Councilmember Tricia Simonson, while she stated she was against discrimination and that many of her personal relationships involve people in the LGBTQ community, said that she was against the ordinance due to her concerns that passing a law specific to certain groups could open up something that could prove difficult to shut down in the future.
“I have rose-colored glasses. I want to believe that everybody is kind to one another. I want to believe that everybody can love who they want to love,” Simonson said. “They can marry who they want to marry, and we can all live in the pursuit of happiness.”
She said that she hopes Gillette residents know that they can agree or disagree with one another and still remain friends.
“We are all created equal and that is something that we have in our state constitution; it is something that we have in the United States Constitution,” she said. “We have policies and we have ordinances and we have laws within our community that are there to protect our community.”
Councilmember Tim Carsrud said that he was voting against the ordinance based on his faith in the protections already afforded by both the U.S. Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution.
He said that he’s the father of a boy adopted several years ago from the Republic of Congo and the father-in-law of a girl born in Mexico.
“I love them both dearly as if they are my own, but I’ve got to say that I am 100% convinced that the U.S. Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution protect them,“ Carsrud said. “They protect me, and they protect you all.”
Lundvall, reading from a prepared statement, said that he was against an ordinance that strives to afford some people more rights than others and could end up creating more division than unity.
“As Mayor of Gillette, it is my responsibility to ensure that our state motto of equal rights is the standard for how we govern with a foundation of impartial justice,” Lundvall said. “As a community of law and order, I fear that this proposed ordinance, however well-intentioned, would ultimately serve to divide our community.”
Lundvall expressed his view that the ordinance carried with it the potential to make existing crimes worse based on the identity of the victims and that it excluded protections for Gillette’s vulnerable identity groups like the elderly and military veterans who don’t align with certain political preferences.
“Instead of applying additional penalties for the commission of existing crimes against certain people, we should be investing our resources to ensure that existing laws are applied without prejudice,” the mayor said. “Make no mistake, anyone who commits a crime against another based on hate should and will be prosecuted under the law.”
Note: This is a two-part story; check back on May 4 for additional coverage.