CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — In a warning that could portend a conflict with lawmakers, Gov. Matt Mead said Thursday that Wyoming must be careful not to limit same-sex couples’ access to the courts.
Both houses of the state Legislature passed bills this week seeking to deny state recognition to such marriages performed elsewhere.
The Senate on Thursday voted 20-10 in favor of a resolution sponsored by Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange. The resolution would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to specify that Wyoming wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages.
The Wyoming House earlier this week approved a similar bill that would change state law to specify the state wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions. Other competing bills are pending in the House that would allow same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage.
The rights of people in same-sex marriages to have access to Wyoming’s courts for issues like child custody and property disputes is already in question. The Wyoming Supreme Court is preparing to hear a divorce case involving two women who were married in Canada after a district judge in November said state law gave him no authority to dissolve their marriage.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Mead said he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“But I also believe that we have to be very careful and pragmatic about how we approach this,” said Mead, a former U.S. attorney in Wyoming. “And the reason is that we do not want to, as a state, limit access to our court system.”
Child custody or property issues can arise with same-sex couples as they do in any marriage, Mead said. “You could have a situation where those needed to be decided quickly. We do not want to say to that couple, ‘Listen, you can’t use our courts. You have to go back to the state where you were married.'”
Wyoming law dating from territorial days specifies that marriage in the state can occur only between one man and one woman. However, the law also specifies that the state will recognize marriages performed elsewhere.
Some lawmakers say Wyoming needs to clarify its law because of the rising number of same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries.
Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said on the Senate floor that he supported Meier’s bill.
“This only provides the right for the citizens of Wyoming to vote on this, on whether they believe it’s appropriate to define marriage as between a man and a woman,” Perkins said.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, spoke against Meier’s bill, saying it amounted to an opportunity for the majority to overwhelm minority rights.
“Don’t kick this down the road to the people, and don’t use that easy out,” Rothfuss said. “If you vote on this piece of legislation, which I know you will today, vote yes or no because you support or oppose the right of equality for the gay community.”
Joe Corrigan, chairman of Wyoming Equality, a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights, said Thursday the organization is disappointed in the Senate vote. He said the group will lobby the House to defeat the measure.
“If you take on the gay community, you’re taking on a lot of people,” Corrigan said. “I think the effect on tourism and other business in Wyoming will be pretty heavily felt.”
Becky Vandeberghe, of WyWatch Family Action, a Wyoming-based family values group, said her group was happy with the Senate vote. “We look forward to the House showing the same respect to both marriage and the people,” she said.