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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
As I watch the Wyoming Legislature this session, it’s clear that the elected members of the Republican party are engaged in a tug-of-war between basic GOP principles and the desire to have certain personal beliefs become law for everyone.
In some cases, it’s resulted in a stunning lack of tolerance for other views and beliefs. It’s not just in the Legislature though, as it’s been actively promoted through the leadership of the Wyoming Republican Party.
A case in point is the Wyoming Republican State Central Committee’s recent condemnation of U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis for her vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act after she was successful at amending the bill to protect religious liberties. Lummis said that she was guided by two things: “The Wyoming Constitution and ensuring religious liberties for all citizens and faith-based organizations were protected.”
In casting her vote, Lummis said, “Striking a balance that protects fundamental religious beliefs with individual liberties was the intent of our forefathers in the U.S. Constitution and I believe the Respect for Marriage Act reflects this balance.”
Lummis, a conservative Republican by any measure, took a principled stand for which she was condemned by her state party. In casting her vote, Lummis noted the importance of tolerance in her action: “Not embracing or validating each other’s devoutly held views, but by the simple act of tolerating them.”
In her Senate floor speech, Lummis said, “People of diverse faith, beliefs and backgrounds had to come to terms with each other, had to tolerate the seemingly intolerable about each other’s views, and had to respect each other’s rights even before the Constitution enumerated those rights,” Lummis added. “They had to tolerate each other in order to survive as a nation.”
Kudos to Lummis for her principled stand and vote. But it was a little too much independent thought for the Wyoming GOP, which prefers to restrict the liberties of our state’s gay citizens as well as other marginalized people. Apparently, the GOP leadership aren’t fans of the whole “equality” thing.
Getting much attention during this legislative session is the continued political maneuvering over abortion. House Bill 152, the “Life is a Human Right Act,” would prohibit all forms of abortion in Wyoming, including in cases of rape or incest.
The bill, a favorite of far-right Republicans calling themselves conservatives, would make violation of the law a felony punishable by up to a $20,000 fine and five years in prison.
As some anti-abortion legislators have pointed out, the bill has major flaws, but that hasn’t kept those adamant about their personal views on the issue from continuing to push it forward.
The current abortion bill, whose primary sponsor is Rachel Rodriguez-Williams of Park County, includes a provision granting special privileges that would only be available to Rodriguez-Williams and the bill’s cosponsors, by making these people the only members of the Legislature eligible to be appointed to intervene in a lawsuit over the bill.
This comes after Rodriguez-Williams and Rep. (and now House Majority Floor Leader) Chip Neiman of Hulett were denied their request to intervene in a legal challenge to Wyoming’s existing abortion ban, which they had also co-sponsored. The GOP apparently isn’t bothered by special privileges in this case.
Beyond the divisive issue of abortion are the self-proclaimed “pro-life” members of the Legislature supporting and advocating pro-family bills, such as other measures supporting children?
Consider a bill like Senate File 79, requiring health care providers to develop plans for safe care for newborns. These plans are designed “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of an infant with prenatal substance use exposure following the infant’s release from the care of a health care provider by addressing the health and substance use treatment needs of the infant and the affected family or caregiver.”
Sen. Fred Baldwin of Kemmerer in Senate District 14 is the sponsor of the bill. Of the six bills Baldwin has served as the primary sponsor this session, five deal with some aspect of health care, and all six of his bills were successful in the Senate and have moved on to the House for consideration.
Baldwin’s SF 79 is based on concern for infants as well as compassion for their parents and caregivers. Instead of penalizing families in dangerous substance abuse situations as some conservative legislators have advocated in the past, this bill would bring together a community team to help families work their way through recovery, while keeping babies with their families.
It’s a pro-baby, pro-family bill. It’s an enabling bill that also doesn’t impact the state budget since it’s not dependent on a financial allocation.
Senator Baldwin presented the bill to the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Monday morning, answering questions and addressing concerns from committee members.
But when it came time to vote, three of the committee’s GOP freshman class voted against the bill: Ben Hornok of HD 42 (Laramie County), Jeanette Ward of HD 57 (Natrona County) and Sarah Penn of HD 33 (Fremont County). Penn was absent from the committee meeting but sent in her proxy vote against the bill.
Fortunately, the bill had the support of the remaining six committee members, so it has now proceeded on for the full House to consider.
These three legislators have voted along the same lines on a variety of other bills, including support for banning abortions. Yet Hornok, Penn and Ward all voted against House Bill 4 extending Medicaid 12-month postpartum coverage to qualifying pregnant women, as well voting against HB 7, which would outlaw marriages for children under the age of 16.
They also voted against HB 34, creating a two-year program for school districts to apply for competitive grants to assist in providing mental health services for K-12 public education students, and against HB 65 establishing the 988 suicide prevention program.
For some, it seems the anti-abortion position is far more important than providing support or a safety net after birth of a child.
Likewise, intolerance continues to rear its ugly head in the Legislature as some members tout the importance of parental rights one day yet pivot the next to ban options for parents to make excruciatingly difficult decisions about their child’s health care, such as providing care to trans youth.
Some members of the Legislature have determined that their personal belief is the only one that counts and seek to take options away from parents and health care providers.
Senate File 111, sponsored by Sen. Charles Scott, would make it felony child abuse to provide “any procedure, drug, other agent or combination thereof that is administered to intentionally or knowingly change the sex of the child.”
Scott’s bill wouldn’t just ban sex surgeries for minors, but would apparently prohibit the use of prescription medications used in transgender health care.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard’s SF 144 would likewise prohibit physicians from prescribing puberty-suppression or hormone drugs to children, with limited exceptions.
That a parent, working with health care professionals, may agree that this is the best care for their child is of no matter, according to these proposed bills. Both bills have passed the Senate and are now in the House.
So much for the GOP’s interest in preserving constitutional rights, such as the right to make our own health care decisions.
What happened to the GOP’s position on limited government?
It’s only invoked now as a matter of convenience. Rodriguez-Williams sponsored HB 95, which would have prohibited towns and counties from restricting the use of working animals. Although she dismissed cautions about eroding local control, the bill ultimately failed.
Rodriguez-Williams’ desire to preserve Western heritage is understandable and was echoed in another bad bill that also thankfully fell by the wayside during the session. Rep. John Winter of Park County had proposed a bill that would designate the Teton County fairgrounds a state historic site should the town or county decide to use the land for anything other than as a fairgrounds.
The bill was sponsored by legislators who do not represent the Jackson area, would have the state mandating use of a particular parcel of county-owned land for which the state currently has no jurisdiction – stomping all over local control.
It’s the same kind of heavy-handed action that enrages state officials when federal officials try the same kind of thing.
As this legislative session continues, my hope is that elected GOP officials remember their calling to preserve liberty and justice. May they remember that their actions should seek to help Wyoming citizens as they seek their individual means of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
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