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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — To say merely that Wyoming is a conservative state doesn't begin to capture it.
Republicans hold nearly every elected office. Lawmakers squirrel away much of the revenue from the state's mineral wealth in a multi-billion-dollar savings account they can't touch without voters’ OK. And gun ownership and hunting are as much a part of a cherished way of life as are ranching and rodeo.
And so, it was remarkable in the legislative session that started in early January when a handful of Republicans supported two measures that might seem more at home in liberal California.
While bills to permit same-sex civil unions and a ban on discrimination against gays made it out of committee, they went down in votes in the full House and Senate. That they even got that far was seen by many as a sign of how the shifting national attitude toward gay rights is affecting views in red states such as Wyoming.
Some Republicans spoke of their decisions to co-sponsor the bills in personal terms, or in language rooted in the libertarian, government-stay-out-my-life ethic of the Cowboy State.
“I think people are beginning to realize that this is just not a big deal. The sky doesn't fall,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who signed on as a co-sponsor on the anti-discrimination bill. He said recent decisions on gay rights in the courts, the military and other states are bleeding into the state's consciousness.
In this year's session, for the first time in years, no one sponsored “defense of marriage” legislation seeking to prevent the state from recognizing same-sex unions performed elsewhere.
These developments come in a state that, at least to gay rights activists, will long be remembered as the place where Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was killed in a 1998 attack that police said was motivated in part by his sexual orientation.
Two years ago, during the last legislative session, some GOP lawmakers, including the then-House speaker, asked the state Supreme Court not to consider a divorce case involving two women who were married in Canada, arguing that any action could serve as legal recognition of same-sex marriage. The court let them divorce.
Despite this year's increase in support for gay-rights measures, however slight, GOP backers faced criticism, Case said.
While young people increasingly don't believe that sexual orientation is a big deal, Case said, the gay rights issues have been divisive among some of his constituents in Lander, a town at the base of the Wind River Mountains that draws ranchers, mountain climbers and Native Americans from a nearby reservation.
“Folks that have at their core, strong religious beliefs, I've heard from them and they've been critical,” Case said.
Committee hearings drew gay activists, religious leaders and residents on both sides of the issue. While the disagreements were irreconcilable, the tone was generally civil.
At one point, Republican Rep. Lynn Hutchings, an African-American legislator from Cheyenne, testified against the civil unions bill and a parallel gay marriage bill that never made it out of committee.
Hutchings called on gays and lesbians to “please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement.”
Republican Rep. Dan Zwonitzer and Democratic Rep. James Byrd, both among the co-sponsors of civil unions bill, said they found her “carpet-bagging” remark distasteful.
Hutchings later spoke out against the anti-discrimination bill. She said she is a member of four protected classes because of her sex, her race, her religion and being a disabled veteran.
“I've personally been spit on, beaten, kicked and called the n-word every day in elementary school and I survived. It was part of our lives, and we just dealt with it,” Hutchings said. “As I said, these classes were there for a reason, not just because a few people had a hard time in school.
“You can look at some kids who were picked on for having red hair, having freckles, being poor, being short, being tall,” she said. “Are we going to add them to our protected classes also?”
On the House floor, Republican Rep. Mark Baker spoke against the domestic partnership bill.
While supporters said passing the bill would allow same-sex couples and others to pool their property and visit each other in the hospital, Baker warned that the bill would increase health care costs, grow government and drum up more business for funeral homes.
Baker said homosexual men die young from AIDS and other medical conditions.
“The fact of the matter is that this is something that's pushed on us to be politically correct. ‘Let's be the Equality State,’” he said, mimicking the bill's supporters and a reference to the state's nickname.
Republican Rep. Sue Wallis, who co-sponsored all three bills, said gay rights underscores some divisions within the Republican Party. She said some people in the party are conservative and don't want the government to interfere in their businesses, communities or families.
“We have kind of an ultra-religious faction that agrees with us on part of that equation,” she said. “When it comes to the most personal, most private and most intimate decisions anybody ever has to make, they want to put the state of Wyoming in the middle of that decision.
“I don't think that's right,” said Wallis, who also strongly opposes efforts to limit access to abortion services in the state.
Sen. John Schiffer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a former Senate president and a rancher, voted for the anti-discrimination bill and said support of the measure fits with the Constitution that all people are created equal, and have equal rights.
Schiffer said he's heard from constituents on both sides but hasn't received any particular criticism.
“It's a sign of the times,” Schiffer said. “People are really thinking about those things and trying to deal with them, and deal with them according to their own conscience. It's tough to do. It's a process, but I think we are trying to deal with it.”