A proposed bill that would clean up gendered language — changing, for example, phrases such as “husband and wife” to “spouses” — throughout Wyoming state statutes has divided two Laramie-based lawmakers.
Proposed by Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, the bill failed to receive an endorsement from the State Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee during its heated November meeting in Sundance.
Rep. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, who sits on the committee, aided in the 8-6 vote that effectively killed the bill’s chance of passing during the upcoming budget session — where bills need support from at least two-thirds of the Legislature to be considered and bills not endorsed by a committee often fail.
Furphy had voted in favor of the proposed legislation during the 2017 general session, when the committee’s House members passed it 6-3.
“I voted for (the bill) previously over in Sheridan and elsewhere because I thought it was just changing the language in our statutes and I didn’t fully understand all the impacts,” Furphy said.
Connolly said there is confusion surrounding the bill’s impacts — in large part because of a memo circulated by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based conservative Christian activist group which opposes same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption.
WyoFile reported Dec. 5 that several members of the public turned out to voice their opinions during the meeting in Sundance. While some people spoke in support of the legislation, many others argued the bill offends the people of Wyoming, offends God, could pave the way for legalizing incest and beastiality and might force churches to perform same-sex marriages.
The bill does not do any of those things, Connolly said. It instead updates state statutes to reflect the realities of married same-sex, adoptive parents or stepparents.
“I would have never expected the vitriol that I heard, that they would feel that way about gays and lesbians,” Connolly said. “I knew it exists, but to have it said over and over and over again … maybe they hate adoptive families as well.”
The bill addresses a number of issues regarding gendered language in state law.
“It included things like very sexist, old-school thoughts about gender roles,” Connolly said.
For example, state statutes imply only straight men are capable of being firefighters by referring to the “wife” who will receive “his” pension in the event of “his death.” The proposed bill would change “wife” to “surviving spouse” and remove each “his,” Connolly said.
Other language throughout state law implied only men could be firefighters, abandon their families or be on probation, and limited rights and responsibilities to particular people, such as in the death of a child, she said.
“The father could take care of the estate, the brother could, the sister could, but not the mom,” Connolly said. “We found all sorts of examples like that that needed to be changed.”
The bill would also update state statutes to reflect that same-sex marriage is now legal everywhere in the United States, including Wyoming. Connolly said attorneys could potentially use the outdated language in state law to deny same-sex couples equal treatment.
“There are places in (the bill) that basically make it clear that same-sex couples are held to the same rights, duties and obligations as different-sex couples,” she said. “So, there were those changes and they were pretty easy changes. You could change ‘husband and wife’ to ‘spouses’ or ‘married couple,’ something like that.”
The bill also addresses same-sex parentage, which serves as the focus of the Alliance Defending Freedom’s memo.
“If a woman in a lesbian marriage gives birth to a child, it is not presumed that the child’s parent is also the child’s mother,” the memo states. “That is biologically impossible. A child can have only one mother. But the proposed Wyoming law rejects this presumption.
The memo misunderstands the legal definition of parenting, which refers to a caregiving relationship, Connolly said. Examples of non-biological parents Connolly’s legislation would protect are same-sex couples and both adoptive parents and stepparents.
“In the memo, there is this repeated emphasis on the biological and that children should be brought up by biological mothers and fathers only,” she said. “That gives me great concern when it comes to adoptive families. That road is not a road we want to go down.”
Though the memo argues “the state has an interest in encouraging children to be raised in the most stable homes with their biological mother and father,” Connolly said the memo’s author either misunderstood or misrepresented the law.
“The reality is our statutes, like every other state, are not written that way,” Connolly said. “Our statutes privilege the marriage relationship when it comes to children and the presumption is that the child that’s born to a wife has a father that is her husband. There is no test to see if the husband is actually the child’s father.”
This “presumption of parentage” extends to homosexual and other relationships wherein the mother’s spouse is not a newborn child’s biological father.
“Our statutes, like everyone else’s, are written to understand that that relationship is about care-giving of parents to children,” she said. “(The memo) negates the reality of stepparents stepping up and it negates the reality of same-sex families and couples.”
Connolly prepared rebuttals to the arguments made in the memo ahead of the meeting in Sundance. She said she expected the memo’s author — given as Matt Sharp, senior counsel — to make an appearance.
Instead, members of the public turned out, making social, rather than legal, arguments.
Furphy said he changed his vote in part because of the constituents who called him to complain after he initially supported the bill.
“I struggled a lot over this issue,” he said. “I spent a couple of sleepless nights considering it and so, it was not just a reaction to those who testified in Sundance. My decision was made before the meeting, based on the input I received.”
Furphy added he could not say whether he would support a similar bill in the future, even if it was written differently.
“I can’t say at this point until I know further,” he said. “Once again, I’m representing my constituents.”
The memo argues Wyoming is not required to update its laws to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. in 2015.
But Connolly said making Wyoming state statutes accurate is the Legislature’s responsibility.
“We have an obligation to make our statutes meaningful for our state-wide constituents,” she said. “They should reflect the law. Right now, our statutes don’t reflect the law.”