Bruce Knell seen during a City Council meeting in Aug. 2021 when he publicly expressed a change of views regarding discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community. After joining the City Council in Jan. 2021. (City of Casper, Youtube)

CASPER, Wyo. — On Tuesday, a majority of the members of the Casper City Council indicated they are ready to formally consider a proposed new anti-discrimination ordinance that would offer new protections against bias-motivated violence as well as discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Among members indicating a willingness to champion the proposed new anti-discrimination law was Vice Mayor Bruce Knell, who said he thinks people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect no matter who they are.

“I think if you want to go around bullying and being mean to people that are different than you, then you should have to pay a price for it,” Knell said.

The proposed fine for violating the prohibitions against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations contemplated under the draft ordinance would be $750. The draft ordinance would also create new enhanced penalties if a Casper municipal judge were to rule, based on evidence demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person had committed assault, battery or an incitement of violence against someone because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin or disability.

The proposed ordinance was drafted by City Attorney John Henley with input from members of the Council’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee and input from members of the Casper City Council who attended a meeting in Cheyenne and learned about an anti-discrimination ordinance passed there.

When Knell joined the City Council, he initially questioned the need for some protections against discrimination against LGBTQ people, but publicly announced during an August 2021 City Council meeting a change of view after conversations with members of the LGBTQ Advisory Committee.

Knell reiterated Tuesday that his position regarding the need for protection against discrimination has evolved.

“I’ve changed my views and I’ve learned to be more accepting of [those] different than me or different than what I think,” he said, adding that acceptance doesn’t mean he has to think another person’s views are correct. “It just means people should be treated with dignity and respect.

“If it takes legislation like this to put a stop to the hate and the discrimination, then I’m all for it. One hundred percent. That’s where I’m at, I think that’s where most of the council is at.”

Councilmember Kyle Gamroth asked Henley to talk about the burden of proof that would be required in regard to the penalties the draft ordinance proposes for bias-motivated acts of violence. Casper’s current ordinance establishes fines up to $750 for a first assault offense. A Casper Municipal Court judge can impose fines up to $750 and incarceration for up to six months for a second assault offense, Henley said.

The proposed new ordinance would create the possibility of an enhanced penalty if a municipal judge finds someone guilty of assault, battery or an incitement of violence against someone else because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin or disability, referred to in the language of the ordinance as “protected characteristics.”

The proposed ordinance outlines burden of proof requirements as follows:

Burden of proof. Investigations of alleged violations of this code are undertaken based upon a strong showing of reasonable suspicion that the violation occurred because the alleged perpetrator’s actions were based on one or more protected characteristics of the victim(s). Reasonable suspicion is best demonstrated by expressions of bias, hate or prejudice, made or encouraged by the perpetrator at or near the time of the alleged violation, or, through a sustained pattern of conduct which demonstrates the perpetrator’s motivation. Violations of this code section, must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

While the burden of proof for civil cases under federal anti-discrimination law handled through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is based on a preponderance of evidence, Casper’s proposed ordinance would rely on the criminal court principle of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Henley said.

In terms of showing enough evidence that someone’s act of violence was motivated by bias, Henley said this is not easy to demonstrate as people’s minds can’t be read.

“Actually, those are pretty hard cases to prosecute,” Henley said.

There is also the appeals process available to defendants in criminal cases, Henley added.

Mayor Ray Pacheco said he likes that the proposed ordinance is broad. While it was initially proposed by the LGBTQ Advisory Committee, it doesn’t offer protections only to people in the LGBTQ community but instead to anyone who faces discrimination because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin or disability.

As Wyoming is one of only two states that has not passed legislation against hate crimes, Pacheco said he supports creating municipal-level protections amid the legislature’s inaction.

Knell said he thinks discrimination is a not-infrequent occurrence in the community. While some might not think that is the case, he said this is because they haven’t been the victims of discriminatory treatment.

“Until you are on the other end of that hate, it doesn’t register with you,” Knell said, adding that the new proposed ordinance would offer protections to anyone facing discrimination. “This is simply the right thing to do. Period. For everyone.”

Councilmember Amber Pollock said she is pleased that the ordinance is comprehensive in addressing not only bias-motivated crime but also discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment. She thanked Henley and everyone who put time and effort into creating the proposal.

Councilmember Steve Cathey was the only member of the City Council to voice opposition to the proposed ordinance on Tuesday.

“Murder is murder, assault is assault,” Cathey said, arguing that he doesn’t think there is a need for special protections against bias-motivated violence.

Cathey added that while he agrees respect should be extended to everyone in the community, he doesn’t think it is possible to legislate respect.

Gamroth noted that the law distinguishes between first- and second-degree murder, so he thinks there is already precedent for setting penalties based on someone’s mindset in committing a crime.

Councilmember Lisa Engebretsen said she thinks discrimination against women, LGBTQ people and people of color is common in the community.

“Wyoming in a whole is still the good-ol’-boys club, has been for years, and that needs to change,” she said. “Is this going to stop everything? Absolutely not. Have we needed something with teeth? Absolutely.

“We women, and people in the LGBT community and people of color deal with this daily, multiple times a day. This is us telling the world this is not acceptable. … I should be able to go in and do my job without having to be sexually harassed or have my job threatened.”

Cathey said that he experienced discriminatory treatment when coming home after serving in the military during the Vietnam War era. He said he was called a baby-killer, spat on and cussed at. He said the law did not get changed in response to that treatment of Vietnam-era veterans.

Pacheco said the kind of treatment Vietnam veterans like Cathey faced was also abhorrent. He reiterated that the proposed rules for Casper are not specific to any one minority but protect against discrimination more generally.

Councilmember Michael McIntosh said he has witnessed attacks against his own loved ones based on their identity that were appalling. He said he is amazed Wyoming still hasn’t passed any state-level hate crime legislation and that he fully supports Casper’s proposed new ordinance.

With a majority of the City Council indicating support to move forward with formal consideration of the proposed ordinance during the work session, the council will likely consider the proposed new ordinance on first public reading during its Tuesday, Nov. 1 regular meeting. Ordinance proposals must pass on three separate readings during regular meetings in order to become law.

Further context about the new proposed ordinance is available in this article.

A memo from Henley and the full draft ordinance can be reviewed below:

YouTube video