Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Deeply conservative Wyoming loses ACLU chapter

Organization’s proponents say closure is a blow to civil rights and liberties in Equality State

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Linda Burt, the executive director of the Wyoming American Civil Liberties Union, had planned to push hard for juvenile justice reform during the upcoming state legislative session. Wyoming is the only state from which the federal government withholds funds under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act because it fails to meet the law’s standards. She prepared a presentation for an April 14 meeting of the legislature’s joint judiciary committee that outlined how most Wyoming children are processed in adult courts, many are jailed alongside adults and few receive protections afforded by traditional juvenile systems.

But Burt never gave her presentation. On April 10, the ACLU’s national office shut down its Wyoming chapter, laying her off and two other employees, leaving just one grant-funded staffer working on LGBT issues through August. Wyoming is now the only state in the nation without an ACLU chapter.

“People are asking me, ‘Where am I going to go now? Who’s going to help me?’” Burt said. “And I don’t know where, and I don’t know who. We were the only people who did certain kinds of work.”

Former Wyoming ACLU Director Linda Burt, left, with staffer Ryan Frost, had planned to push hard for juvenile justice reform during the upcoming state legislative session.
Aaron Schrank / WPR

She said her office’s closure came as a surprise, and she learned she would be terminated just 10 days in advance. The act was part of a round of nationwide ACLU layoffs that also affected workers in New York, California and Washington, D.C. The national office declined to comment for this article but earlier issued a statement that read, “ACLU will continue to have a presence in [Wyoming] with restructured staffing,” though it is unclear what that will look like. Its New York office will handle Wyoming’s legal intake.

Wyoming is the least populous state in the nation, and nonprofit advocacy organizations like the ACLU are scant.

“There are very few places to turn to in Wyoming for help if you feel like your rights are violated. I can probably count them on my fingers,” said Ron Akin, the chairman of the Wyoming ACLU’s advisory board. “Without the ACLU in Wyoming, it’s basically open season on civil liberties and civil rights.”

The remaining groups that look after the rights of minorities, immigrants, inmates and other at-risk populations in Wyoming often depended on the ACLU for critical support. Wyoming NAACP President James Robinson said he regularly referred people who were unable to afford a lawyer to the ACLU for legal help, which his organization does not provide.

“Now we don’t have anyone we can refer them to,” he said. “We are not equipped with lawyers. That’s going to really be missed.”

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero wrote in an internal memo obtained by the The Washington Post that the national organization has been running an annual deficit of more than $15 million over the past five years. By closing its Wyoming office, the ACLU will save roughly $360,000 out of its annual budget of more than $100 million.

“If the federal organization thinks they’re just saving money, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Catherine Connolly, a Democratic state representative. “The ACLU has a really valuable voice here. In a citizen legislature like ours, that voice is absolutely necessary.”

‘There are very few places to turn to in Wyoming for help if you feel like your rights are violated. I can probably count them on my fingers.’

Ron Akin

chairman, Wyoming ACLU advisory board

Wyoming’s ACLU office — along with Puerto Rico’s and the single office that covers both Dakotas — was financed almost exclusively by the national organization. All other states have affiliate offices that fundraise for most of their own budgets and therefore enjoy a heightened degree of autonomy. Burt said Wyoming’s sparse population and vast geography made face-to-face fundraising in the state difficult, which prohibited the ACLU here from being financially self-sustaining.

Wyoming is a deeply conservative place. It topped a 2014 Gallup poll of the nation’s most conservative states. Many of the Wyoming ACLU’s recent lobbying achievements have come in partnership with Republican lawmakers, such as a bill presented this year to limit the police’s ability to seize property from suspected drug dealers. Republicans and the ACLU also worked together to protect privacy rights in Wyoming with a bill requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting drone surveillance.

Republican state Rep. Mark Baker, who worked on both bills, said he welcomed the ACLU’s help. Though he has argued against the organization’s advocacy on traditionally progressive issues like LGBT rights, he said he always appreciated the ACLU’s input.

“It’s nice to have multiple perspectives on an issue when you’re trying to make a decision, whether you agree with them or not,” he said. “A bill would come through the legislature, and we’d think, ‘This is an easy topic. There’s no concerns with it.’ But then the ACLU would testify and say, ‘Have you guys thought about this? Have you considered this? And the impact on this?’”

Burt said she received a deluge of heartwarming emails and calls once news got out of her office’s closure. Many were from people who had been at odds with the ACLU’s positions but valued the exchange of ideas it prompted.

“We heard from lots of people I would have thought may have been opposed to us or not on the same page with us. They said they were sorry we were leaving. I was kind of astonished,” she said.

But not everyone in Wyoming laments the ACLU’s absence.

“I’m glad they’re gone,” said Frank Jorge, who runs a libertarian podcast from the small town of Basin. “I think it’s a plus for the state of Wyoming to not have them here.”

Jorge said he disagreed with the ACLU’s work to protect the rights of illegal immigrants as well as the organization’s support for legislation like a recently defeated bill that would have made it illegal for business owners to fire employees for being gay.

“If I own a business, and I cannot deny somebody employment or services, why are their rights more important than mine?” he said.

Joshua Kronberg-Rasner knows precisely the impact of this type of argument. The New Jersey native was fired from his job as director of catering and retail services at Casper College in 2012 after his manager discovered a photo of male gymnast Danell Leyva on his personal phone. Another manager told his coworkers he was a pedophile.

Kronberg-Rasner, who has lived in Wyoming roughly 10 years, said he lost the vacation pay he had accrued and had to take the contractor who fired him, Sodexo, to court before he could receive unemployment benefits.

“It very much soured me on Wyoming politics and how you have to function here,” he said.

The ACLU, he feels, could hardly have left the state at a worse time. Conservative legislators recently proposed a law that would exempt clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages, and lawmakers at the state and local level continue to work on bills to protect gay workers.

“It’s very poignant when you consider how their departure comes on the heels of marriage and during the employment discrimination debate — that all of a sudden the ACLU just walks off, literally leaving in the middle of a battle,” he said.

“It’s like, ‘Sorry, Wyoming. Back to the frontier.’”

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