Many who packed into the Gillette City Council chambers Tuesday brought signs protesting a proposed anti-hate crimes ordinance, but in the end the vocal pleas from one of Wyoming’s most conservative populations weren’t enough as the council passed the controversial law 4-3.
With the vote, the ordinance adds a specific criminal charge for offenses believed to target people for their race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry or disability.
Of the 29 people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, 22 opposed the ordinance. There also were 117 comments made on the council website, the overwhelming majority urging its failure.
Many pushed council members to vote against the ordinance on Tuesday because of the overwhelming public opposition to it.
“The truth of the matter is, y’all were elected to represent us,” said state Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette. “You were elected to do the will of the people.”
But a few council members like Heidi Gross said there is a significant silent contingency in Gillette that expressed support for the ordinance to her in private, creating what she said was a roughly 50/50 split among opponents and supporters.
“A lot were more comfortable talking to me about it one-on-one,” Gross told Cowboy State Daily after the meeting.
Gross said her biggest inspiration for voting to criminalize hate crimes was her conscience.
The city of Gillette has played host to a number of contentious issues that have involved religion, sexual and gender orientation over recent years.
Last month, Gillette Police reported anti-Semitic flyers distributed in one neighborhood, and several residents received a CD that contained white supremacy, Aryan brotherhood and Nazi propaganda, the Gillette News Record reported.
Supporters of the bill like councilman Jim West said it’s important the city take a stand on hate crimes.
“What it says is that we are going to have a step higher, just like domestic terrorism, just like these other things we have for enhancement laws,” he said.
Around 20 people picketed in front of City Hall prior to the meeting, and their signs were scattered in the back of the council room during the meeting.
A few local residents made sarcastic references to LGBTQ terms and phrases when arguing their points. Others leaned on the argument of religious freedom, often drawing small applause from others in the audience.
One resident who identified himself as a Mr. Galloway drew chuckles when he began his remarks with, “I identify as a cynical old man.”
Former state legislator and Gillette pastor Scott Clem’s church suffered vandalism in 2021 after he protested a transgender magician’s scheduled performance at the local library. He said picking and choosing classes of people is inherently discriminatory.
“By continuing to do this, is what it does is inflate more tribalism,” he said. “People are at each other’s necks because it’s my tribe against your tribe.”
Jordan Engdahl said the hate crime ordinance would only serve to benefit Gillette. She said many people grow up in Gillette without an opportunity to look at the world through rose-colored glasses.
“This shows the world that Gillette is a welcoming community, they can come here,” she said. “I’ve had loved ones move away because they felt it wasn’t welcoming here.”
Gillette resident Susan Sisti opposed the measure and said she believed there is a connection between the effort to pass it and those who oppose proposed policy changes to book procurement policies at the Campbell County Public Library.
“I believe from what we’ve heard and we’ve gotten FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, this is tied to that,” she said.
Although there were some contentious moments at the meeting, a few people opposing the ordinance told Cowboy State Daily afterward they weren’t surprised it passed.
More than a dozen people walked out of the meeting even before the final vote was taken, after a motion was denied to delay voting on the ordinance.
As of Tuesday’s meeting, the ordinance was on its third reading with no significant changes made since first introduced in early May. Similarly, the voting lines never changed between those supporting and opposing it on the council.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Clem said.
In addition, the vast majority of those speaking out Tuesday had already testified on the ordinance at previous meetings.
‘Easy Way Out’
Drawing some of the most contention among council members was a comment Gross made toward the end of the meeting, saying voting against the ordinance “is the easy way out.”
“I’m fairly sure this wasn’t easy for any of us,” responded councilman Tim Carsrud.
Councilwoman Trish Simonson, who voted against the ordinance, also took offense to Gross’ comment. Simonson urged council to delay voting on the matter to give more time to studying it. She said the city of Casper took 18 months before passing its anti-hate crime ordinance.
“I think we could have found a better middle ground to find something middle-of-the-road for everybody,” she said.
Carsrud, who voted against the ordinance, said he also was offended by some emails he received from supporters, who he said accused him of being a hateful person.
Gross and Sisti also engaged in a short back and forth when the councilwoman accused Sisti of pointing at her while making a public comment. The spat deescalated quickly after Gross apologized for identifying Sisti by name.
Clem believes the ordinance will do nothing and expressed doubt that any hate crime charges would ever be brought in municipal court.
“This will do absolutely nothing,” he said. “It’s completely virtue signaling.”
He does believe, however, the Gillette council’s decision could set a precedent for other towns in Wyoming.
Mayor Shay Lundvall voted against the ordinance, expressing confidence in the ability of his community to handle conflicts and doubt that the ordinance would serve an economic benefit for the city. He urged his fellow council members to remain unified moving forward.
“My hope is that this council continues to lead in a positive way without undermining each other, without going what may be perceived as any other direction but working together,” he said. “That’s not going to be easy but we can do it.”
The hate crime ordinance,along with the potential for criminal prosecution, goes into effect next week.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.