GILLETTE, Wyo. — On Tuesday, the Gillette City Council advanced an ordinance intended to establish penalties for criminal acts perpetrated due to bias, hate or discrimination to its final reading.
The proposed ordinance now has to pass one more reading before it can go into effect. If enacted, it would make threatening or inciting violence against people or their property based on their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or disability a crime, per the City of Gillette.
During its May 17 meeting, the council was again divided on whether to pass the measure, with four members ultimately advancing the ordinance to its final reading and three — Gillette Mayor Shay Lundval and Councilmembers Tricia Simonson and Tim Carsrud — voting against it.
Councilmember Tricia Simonson said that there are already laws in place that make any of the acts identified in the proposed ordinance crimes already and urged the council to tread lightly when they say a person’s words, depictions or conduct are likely to incite violence because of a certain class of people.
“Do I like that people say these kinds of things? No, I don’t. Do I like that people burn a Qur’an or a Bible? I don’t. Or the American flag,” Simonson said. “But if it’s your Bible, if it’s your Koran, if it’s your American flag, that is freedom of speech whether we like it or not, and I think we need to remember the big scope of things when we look at something like this.”
Councilmember Jim West, who voted to advance the measure, said that the ordinance does not create new crimes with new penalties; rather, it serves as a multiplier for laws already on the books. He pointed out that with certain crimes like homicide, there are different penalties depending on the severity of the crime and other factors.
“It is not a new law. You cannot yell and scream that you don’t like somebody and have somebody put a hate governance against you,” West said. “You have to commit another crime first before this goes into place.”
Carsrud sought to clarify claims that the ordinance was needed because the Gillette Police Department was failing to enforce the laws already in place and that some incidents were not being reported because they felt the police wouldn’t act.
Gillette Police Chief Chuck Deaton, in response to inquiries from Carsrud, told the council his officers will, and have, responded to incidents potentially involving hate crimes like property destruction and church vandalism and will continue to do so.
Lundvall said if people are unwilling to report crimes for any reason, then blame for any lack of a law enforcement response cannot be placed on the city. He also said that he was against the ordinance because of how it is worded and that he was not in favor of layering laws already in place.
He also took issue with previous claims that Gillette’s lack of an anti-hate crime ordinance meant that companies don’t want to bring their business here. He said that, as mayor, he speaks with company leaders and the issue had not come up once.
If something like a hate crime were to take place, Lundvall said, there is not a doubt in his mind that the community would stand firm against that hate.
“That is unacceptable and nobody in this community wants that in our community. Period,” Lundvall said. “Whether it’s from economic development, whatever it is, there’s not a single one of us up here that doesn’t want a good, healthy community.”
The malicious harm ordinance first came before the council on May 2 in a meeting where the measure drew diverse comments from members of the public.
Those who spoke in favor of the ordinance did so because they said it would help them feel safe or would send a strong message that Gillette is a community that welcomes people from all walks of life.
Those against the measure expressed concerns that the ordinance may violate free speech protections afforded under the U.S. Constitution or that it carried the potential to further divide the community. Others said they were against the ordinance because the acts identified as crimes in the ordinance are already crimes or they felt the city had more important things to attend to.
The ordinance narrowly passed its first reading by the council, with four members voting in favor and three against.