LARAMIE, Wyo. - The Laramie City Council on Wednesday approved a local anti-discrimination ordinance in the college town where Matthew Shepard's death triggered nationwide sympathy and brought a re-examination of attitudes toward gays 17 years ago.
The council voted 7-2 in favour of the measure that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and access to public facilities such as restaurants.
Local organizers focused their efforts on Laramie after the Legislature repeatedly rejected anti-discrimination bills, most recently early this year. The Laramie Nondiscrimination Task Force presented a draft ordinance to the City Council last summer.
Jeran Artery, head of the group Wyoming Equality which has lobbied for the anti-discrimination measures at the state Legislature, said he was thrilled with the council vote.
"What a day for Wyoming, and what a day for the city that became synonymous with Matthew Shepard's murder to now step up and do this right thing," Artery said. "And I would really encourage other communities across the state to follow Laramie's lead."
Shepard, a gay university student, was murdered in Laramie in 1998, and his death became a rallying point in the gay rights movement. Congress has passed hate crimes legislation bearing his name.
Judy Shepard, Matt Shepard's mother, is active in a Denver-based foundation that bears her son's name and focuses on equality issues.
"I'm thrilled that Laramie's doing it, at the same time sort of saddened that the state of Wyoming can't see fit to do that as well," Shepard told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday before the council vote from Washington, D.C. "Maybe the rest of Wyoming will understand this is about fellow human beings and not something that's other than what they are."
Laramie Mayor Dave Paulekas spoke in favour of the amendment.
"To me, this is about treating people fairly, it's about treating people the way I would want to be treated, the way we all expect to be treated," Paulekas said before the vote. "And it's nothing more than that, in my mind."
Paulekas said that if Laramie wants to see economic development, high-tech firms are going to look at how the city treats its citizens.
Councillors Joe Vitale and Bryan Shuster cast the only no-votes against the ordinance. Both said they were concerned that the ordinance would trample on city residents' religious freedoms.
"Enactment of this ordinance will result in discrimination complaints filed against business owners who are simply trying to run their business consistent with their faith," Vitale said. The council rejected his suggestion that it postpone action on the matter until next year to give the U.S. Supreme Court and the Wyoming Legislature more time to act on the issue.
Judy Shepard said some people are still under the misconception that what happened to her son is typical of what happens in Wyoming.
"But I feel like if Wyoming had done more to open the door to acceptance, that kind of reputation would have disappeared very quickly," said Shepard, herself a Wyoming resident. "Instead of taking advantage of the moment, they just sort of turned around and ran."
Gov. Matt Mead last year went to court to defend Wyoming's gay marriage ban before federal court rulings from other states blocked the state from further action.
And a handful of Wyoming lawmakers this spring filed a brief urging the nation's highest court to reject same-sex marriage on the grounds that forcing states to accept it would violate other citizens' free-speech rights.
Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, voted against the anti-discrimination bill this year and was among those who endorsed the U.S. Supreme Court brief.
"I suppose it's their right as a city," Kroeker said of Laramie's proposal. But he noted such measures grant special privileges to one group over another — an idea he doesn't support.
Asked about his thoughts on such an ordinance passing in the city where Shepard was killed, Kroeker said: "The Matt Shepard case was a tragedy, but I don't see how an anti-discrimination ordinance would have stopped somebody from committing that heinous crime."