HELENA - A Senate committee voted along party lines Friday for a bill to nullify Missoula's 2010 ordinance that protects residents from discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender and gender expression.

Missoula adopted the ordinance in April 2010.

By a 5-4 vote, the five Republicans on the Senate Local Government Committee sent House Bill 516 by Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, to the Senate floor for debate. All four Democrats opposed the bill.

First, the panel approved an amendment by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, to strike the words "resolution" and "policy" from the bill to clarify that the bill applies only to local government ordinances like Missoula's.

It would exclude anti-discrimination policies like the one adopted by the city of Bozeman.

Democrats criticized the bill on several fronts.

"I really oppose this bill," said Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, a former city manager. "I think it is interfering on the legal rights of the local government by the state government. I know if the federal government were to impose something like this on the state government, we would go ballistic."

Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, questioned why a Havre legislator would sponsor a bill directed at a Missoula ordinance.

"There was not one member of the Missoula delegation who supported this bill," Augare said. "Not one. I find it very disheartening that a member from very far and away across the mountains, a member of the Legislature, would impose such a thought on a city."

Augare said local governments have been allowed to adopt anti-smoking ordinances and ordinances to curb drunken driving.

But then an ordinance comes up to "respect people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" and "it's suddenly an issue," he said. "I find it disheartening and quite frankly shameful."

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, defended the right "not to be overregulated."

He said he has heard comments from people asking about whether a business, under the ordinance, could legally keep "a certain sector" out of a multi-stall public restroom. It was an apparent reference to transgender men using women's restrooms, an issue raised by some people testifying against the bill in hearings.

"As a father with three young daughters - they're grown up now - I find that a little troublesome," Tutvedt said.

Wittich said he struggled with the bill because he is "a tremendous advocate for individual rights and local control."

"But the fact is the state occupies the field on human rights matters," said Wittich, an attorney.

Wittich asked why the state Human Rights Act couldn't be expanded to include what the Missoula ordinance contains. But he said that wasn't the bill before the committee Friday.

Earlier in the session, the House Judiciary Committee tabled just such a measure, HB514 by Rep. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte.

"To me, it's simply a matter of respect for the law, and the law is clear that if somebody wants to make a discrimination claim, they follow the Human Rights Act," Wittich said.

Augare said he found it ironic that Wittich talked about respecting the law, but wants to overturn an ordinance, "which is pretty much law."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

 

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