Gillette Divided As City Considers Discrimination Ordinance

A proposed ordinance targeting discrimination in Gillette has divided the northeast Wyoming community, as well as its City Council, which narrowly passed its first reading 4-3.

Leo Wolfson

May 11, 20239 min read

Gillette resident Dean Vomhof makes fashion and political statements at last week's Gillette City Council meeting as he spoke in opposition of a proposed ordinance that would criminalize discrimination in the city.
Gillette resident Dean Vomhof makes fashion and political statements at last week's Gillette City Council meeting as he spoke in opposition of a proposed ordinance that would criminalize discrimination in the city. (City of Gillette via YouTube)

The city of Gillette is working through an anti-hate-crime ordinance, sparking current and former Campbell County state lawmakers’ consternation.

The proposed “malicious harms” ordinance would add a specific criminal charge for offenses believed to target people for their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or disability. 

Gillette City Council members voted 4-3 to pass the ordinance on its first reading last week and will consider the proposal again Tuesday.

“It’s a way to show people we’re open for business,” said City Council President Billy Montgomery, who introduced and helped write the ordinance. Montgomery, a longtime resident, said he wants people to look at Gillette as a place where their dreams can come true.

Opponents to the ordinance, however, feared it would stifle free speech and create special victim classes.

Perception Is Reality

Proponents tout the ordinance as an economic driver for the community, a way to show people and businesses considering relocating to Gillette that the town is welcoming toward all people and backgrounds.

But those supporting the ordinance also seek to address a deeper issue in their community.

Councilwoman Heidi Gross said it’s time for the city to put some teeth behind its laws.

In response to the burning of a Quran by an anti-Islam group in the city in 2016, the city of Gillette passed a resolution condemning discrimination in city limits. The malicious harms ordinance would go much further, making actions based on discrimination a crime punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to $750 in fines.

“It shows people we’re welcoming and we’re not going to let people become targets here,” Gross told Cowboy State Daily.

Incidents Of Discrimination

Discrimination has become a hot-button topic in Gillette in recent years.

Local residents in 2021 protested the scheduled performance of a transgender magician planning a show at the local library. The magician canceled her show after receiving numerous threats.

“Most of the speech is based on false stereotypes such as gay people are groomers, transgender people are pedophiles,” longtime Gillette resident Karen Eberts said during the city council meeting. “These types of statements get restated, and soon there is an escalation in this type of speech.”

Gillette Police reported anti-Semitic flyers last month in one neighborhood, and several residents received a CD that contained white supremacy, Aryan brotherhood and Nazi propaganda, reported.

Gross described the flyers as “disgusting,” and during the council meeting asked the audience whether it wants to be represented by those who promote hate.

Ariane Jimison, a lesbian who co-owns a popular pizza restaurant in Gillette, also read a statement to the council. She said she and her partner have received various violent threats.

Jimison said her vehicle has been vandalized with spray paint and someone threw a pumpkin through one of its windows. Her restaurant also was vandalized with homophobic slurs written throughout the property.

“This protection would mean a safer Gillette and could give us the opportunity for justice if these kinds of crimes were committed against us in the future,” Jimison said.

Sae Cotton, a member of the LGBTQ community, testified and said they don’t feel comfortable holding hands with a loved one while walking around Gillette.

“Having legal protections for this sort of thing would mean the world to me,” Cotton said. 

Opposition, Free Speech

Chelsea Roan, a member of the LGBTQ community who took part in the anti-Muslim demonstration, spoke against the ordinance last week.

Roan said she could have been arrested for actions she believes are protected free speech if the proposed ordinance had been in effect.

The Wyoming Legislature considered an anti-hate bill in 2021, but it didn’t get far. The cities of Cheyenne, Casper, Jackson and Laramie have passed local hate-crime ordinances.

Leadership’s Thoughts

About 20 other people spoke for and against the ordinance at the meeting, including Gillette Republican state legislators Sen. Troy McKeown and Rep. Chris Knapp.

Hyun Kim, the Gillette city administrator, said the language used in the proposed ordinance comes directly from the Civil Rights Act.

Kim said the city hired him in 2021 in part to help diversify the Gillette economy.

“I would hearken to the fact we are losing our young people who are going off and not coming back,” he said. “We are losing time here.”

Gillette Mayor Shay Lundvall, who was sworn into office in January, said he hasn’t had a single business considering a move to Gillette in the past four months question him about discrimination issues.

Crime First

City Attorney Sean Brown said the ordinance doesn’t pertain to hateful speech specifically, but would apply after authorities already had established evidence of harassment, battery, vandalism or threats.

Lundvall echoed this while speaking against the ordinance, telling Cowboy State Daily the crimes committed against Jimison’s pizza shop would be addressed in law the same way without the ordinance, but could create special victim groups with it.

“I fear that this proposed ordinance, however well-intentioned, will ultimately serve to divide our community,” he said. “It would make existing crimes worse by definition based on the identity of the victims.” 

Eberts countered, saying the hate crime aspect should be specifically charged to prevent a discrimination “ripple effect.”

Council member Tricia Simonson choked up while discussing the ordinance, against which she voted. She shared Lundvall’s concerns about creating special victim groups.

“I think it’s important for our whole community to feel protected and safe and not have different rules for different crimes,” she said. “All crime is malicious. I don’t feel there should be a different class based on groups defined in the ordinance.”

Special Classes?

Lundvall said of the 11 classes protected from discrimination, there is no mention of discrimination made against people for their age, military status or weight.

“If we’re going down this road, it’s a slippery slope,” he said.

Many people made similar points during last week’s discussion, but none of the 11 classes are defined as special within themselves. What that means is, a white person or Christian would be just as protected from discrimination under the ordinance as a minority or a member of a non-Christian faith.

“If you have your car vandalized because you’re a white woman, you are protected under that ordinance,” Gross said.

Former state lawmaker and local pastor Scott Clem, who spoke against the ordinance, suffered a vandalism attack on his church in 2021 after he protested the transgender magician’s scheduled performance. The vandals spray painted on his church rainbows and phrases such as “TRANS LIVES MATTER,” “God loves all” and “LOVE THY NEIGHBOR.”

Lundvall said he would be more open to considering an ordinance that broadly covers every resident rather than delineating special classes. But the question Lundvall keeps revisiting, he said, is why the city of Gillette is addressing an offense that is already a federal crime under the Civil Rights Act.

“Why is the government even involved with this?” he questioned.

Some residents like Kasey Cook said if people considering moving to the staunchly conservative city of Gillette are bothered by its politics, they should consider moving elsewhere.

“We don’t need to virtue signal to the woke corporatocracy,” said Cook.

Free Speech Questions

Kim advocated for the ordinance and said he and the council agree that free speech cannot be infringed upon, but also said it’s not limitless. He finds the ordinance narrowly tailored and non-subjective, he said.

“You cannot harm one another, you cannot harm property,” he said. “You cannot threaten to harm, you cannot incite violence.”

One part of the resolution includes instances where someone makes discriminatory communications against a person that is deemed as having the potential to incite violence but didn’t end up doing so.

“This is wide open to interpretation. I think it opens the city up to lawsuits,” resident Brian Likewise said.

Dean Vomhof, dressed in a woman’s floral shirt and rainbow-colored wig, questioned if people who laughed at his appearance when he entered the building would be charged with a hate crime under the new ordinance, which he opposes.

State Legislators Weigh In

McKeown said there may or may not be a problem with hate speech in Gillette, but he believes no specific groups are being targeted.

The state senator said he’s been the target of hateful speech himself but believes the ordinance would take personal liberties away in the greater name of all.

“There’s no measurable evidence or element in this crime,” he said. “It goes down to one person’s judgment of whether I said something, or somebody said something to somebody.”

Knapp, whose mother is a Japanese American and has a daughter in the LGBTQ community, said it’s impossible to give intent to someone’s free speech.

“To figure out some of those crimes we have to prove motive, we prove motive, but motive itself is not a crime,” he said.

Gillette Republican State Reps. John Bear and Abby Angelos also spoke against the proposed ordinance on social media.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter