by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
A bill that would allow discrimination against LGBT people passed the Montana House of Representatives on February 22.
HB 516 repeals Missoula's 2010 anti-discrimination ordinance and a similar policy declaration in Bozeman, and prohibits other local governments from enacting ordinances or policies that seek to protect residents from real or perceived discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bill passed by a lopsided 60-39 margin.
The measure, sponsored by Tea Party Republican Rep. Kristin Hansen, now goes to the Montana Senate.
All 32 Democrats in Montana's House voted against the measure. They were joined by seven Republicans. Sixty Republicans voted to pass the bill.
Missoula's Democratic legislators were infuriated by passage of the measure, as well as a companion bill that repealed a Missoula ordinance making enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest law enforcement priority.
'It is ironic that the first bill of the day and the last bill of the day both intend to override the expressed will of Missoulians to govern ourselves as we see fit,' said openly Lesbian Rep. Diane Sands of Missoula.
'Our community is filled with possibly the biggest Gay and Lesbian population in the state,' said Rep. Ellie Hill, another Missoula Democrat. 'We are a community with the University of Montana. We have a lot of young people. We passed this ordinance because we wanted to protect our own citizens, our own people. You don't have to agree with it.'
'Leave us alone,' said Missoula Rep. Sue Malek. 'For heaven's sake. We're one little town in a corner of Montana that has nothing to do with you. You know, I mean, why can't you let people live like they need to live their lives? Why can't they love who they want to love?'
Few Republican legislators spoke on the bill, and those who did avoided talking about the specifics of the Missoula anti-discrimination ordinance, according to The Missoulan newspaper.
The Montana House moved quickly to pass HB516 after it was passed by its Judiciary Committee the previous day.
The committee vote was 13 in favor and seven opposed, with one Republican joining all six of the committee's Democrats in voting against it.
The Judiciary Committee had voted earlier the same day to table HB514, which would have amended the Montana Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression and sexual orientation throughout the state.
That measure was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Edie McClafferty, of Butte. The vote to table her measure was strictly along party lines, 14-6.
Currently the Montana Human Rights Act prohibits only discrimination based on age, marital status, national origin, physical or mental disability, political beliefs or ideas, race or color, religion, and sex, including pregnancy, maternity, and sexual harassment.
All previous attempts to amend the Montana Human Rights Act to protect LGBT residents have also failed.
Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network denounced the committee's action on the two bills.
'They have essentially made it clear that LGBT Montanans are not equals and that they believe the LGBT people do not deserve the same protections as anyone else,' he said.
Before the committee vote on HB514, Democratic Rep. Diane Sands of Missoula spoke out in favor of the bill.
'As an out member of the Lesbian community, you may never have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation, but I have,' she said.
'In many ways, I am not your peer. I am probably the only person - well, not in this room - who can be asked to leave a restaurant, denied housing, refused to be allowed into a hotel simply because of sexual orientation.
'It is a fact that I am not protected under the law. You can go ahead and vote against this bill, which I know you will, but that's a fact, and I want to you to know the face of a person who's affected by it and it's me.'
The HRN's Greer argued that HB 516 would interfere with the legal right of municipalities to protect their own citizens, even if the state government failed to act.
'Localities have the right and the legal ability to go beyond the Montana Human Rights Act,' he said. 'The Montana Human Rights Act sets the floor. It does not set the ceiling. Cities have the authority to establish ordinances and policies that protect and value members of their communities that have faced a history of discrimination.
'That is exactly what the City of Missoula did when it passed its Anti-Discrimination Ordinance in April of 2010.'
Republicans made major gains in legislative seats in the 2010 election, and now outnumber Democrats in the Montana House 68 to 32.
Republicans also control the Montana Senate by a margin of 27 to 23.
Governor Brian Schweitzer is a Democrat, but he has not indicated whether he would veto HB516 if it is passed by both legislative bodies and sent to him for his signature.
A 2008 poll sponsored by the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) HealthCare 775NW, and the United Church of Christ found that 'voters support changing Montana human rights law to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.'
'Strong supporters include women, Democrats, and younger voters,' HRN added.
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