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A proposed hate crime ordinance draws strongly divided opinions from Gillette residents

 A Gillette Water tank with the text "Energy Capital Of The Nation City of Gillette, Wyoming"
J. Stephen Conn
Flickr via CC BY-NC 2.0

Wyoming, along with South Carolina, are the only two states in the nation without some kind of hate crime law. Four cities in Wyoming do have a hate ordinance. Those are Laramie, Casper, Cheyenne and Jackson.

Public Divided

The Gillette City Council is currently debating whether or not to adopt a hate crime ordinance. Since it was introduced late last month, it’s passed two of three readings. It’s proven to be a hot topic.

At the second reading of the ordinance, the council chamber was filled with residents waiting to voice their opinions on the second reading of the hate crime ordinance.

The public spoke during the public comment period and it was heated. finally had the chance to speak--some of the comments were heated.

“The LGBT group is currently the most protected group in the country and we don't need another law protecting them more,” said Cheryl Vomhoff representing those who believe there is no need for an ordinance.

“At the very least some people want us to be quiet about our lives and want to take away our marriage rights. Others would love to round us up and kill us,” said Leigh Jacobs reading a letter on behalf of Ariana Jamison, whose in a same-sex marriage and co-owns Pizza Carello, an award-winning restaurant in Gillette.

Ordinance introduction 

The introduction of the ordinance comes after several residents in parts of the city reported having recently received white supremacist and anti-Semitic literature both via mail and in flyers left outside homes. So far, police say they don’t know who is responsible and don’t have any suspects.

It was introduced by Councilman Billy Montgomery. He didn’t mention any of those incidents as reasons for introducing it, rather he said it came about after talking to Cheyenne officials about their ordinance that went into effect last year.

“I feel like Cheyenne and Laramie and the other cities that have this that, since passing this the sun sure rises every morning down there, too,” Montgomery said. “I think once they [the public] see that it won't affect their lives, it won't affect their freedom of speech or just freedom period.”

Montgomery added that the ordinance would only apply if someone committed a crime. It’s similar to the ones that both Cheyenne and Casper enacted last year. Gillette’s states that it would be a crime if someone deliberately incited or presented an imminent threat of violence against another person because of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, or disability. It also includes language for instances where a person’s words were intended to bring about violence to someone else because of these characteristics.

A council divided 

So far, the first two votes have been close, both tallying 4-3 votes. Councilwoman Heidi Gross has voted in favor of the proposed ordinance. She said it will help portray the community in a more positive light.

“First of all, [it’s about] economic development,” she said. “I think that it is good to show people in other parts of the country that we are welcoming here, so that's really the main reason.”

City and local economic development officials from Energy Capital Economic Development said they’re not aware of any businesses not relocated to Gillette because of a lack of a hate crime ordinance or vice versa. They explained businesses often don’t state their specific reasons for or against relocating to a community. However, the local award winning restaurant owned by the lesbian couple has said they’ve faced numerous acts of hate.

“But also just to show our community that the members that already live here, that we welcome everybody,” Gross said. “We've had some issues with our public library.”

She’s referring to a continuing debate at Campbell County Public Library Board meetings over the concerns some residents have over books on sex and LGBTQ, and gender identity issues aimed at children and teens. That’s been going on for the past two years.

“I think that the optics of that certainly cast a bad light when people are looking at Gillette or considering coming here, the optics of that just aren't good,” Gross said. “And it doesn't show that we are a welcoming community, and it really doesn’t matter what side of the issue you're on, it just sends not a very good message.”

Mayor Shay Lundvall has voted against the ordinance, saying there are already existing city ordinances and state laws, as well as protections in the U.S. Constitution that guard against these kinds of crimes. He has some concerns that some groups aren’t included.

“By adding 11 special groups, essentially, you're not covering everybody, because it doesn't include veterans, it doesn't include people with disabilities, and those that are obese or…I mean, so there's just a lot of different classes that aren't covered in this,” he said.

Lundvall fears that there would be undue costs on law enforcement and the court system that would be forced to make moral decisions on someone’s actions.

“By creating these protected classes of people, who can question anyone's motive?” he said. “I think you just create a complete imbalance between the groups in the community.”

Since the ordinance was introduced, there have been around 125 messages of various opinions directed to the mayor and council. This doesn’t include messages on private accounts, texts, or phone calls.

Councilwoman Tricia Simonson has voted against the ordinance so far. She said she’s concerned with language in it related to speech.

“It worries me that we have an ordinance that has using words in order to convict someone of a crime and putting them in jail and fining them and leaving that up to a judge and police officers to decide what is supposedly hate speech and what is just regular speech,” she said.

Simonson said that almost everyone she’s heard from in opposition cites the speech clause as a major factor in being against it, though she’s approaching each reading of it with an open mind, meeting with various groups and residents in favor and in opposition to it. She said it’s been a difficult few weeks.

“I've lost sleep. A lot of sleep,” she said as her voice cracked. “This has divided our community even more. And I just wish that people would live and let live, honestly.”

The third and final reading of the ordinance is on June 6th. The council expects more residents will continue to weigh in before then. If they do pass the ordinance, Gillette would become the fifth city to have one.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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