Supporters of Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance are bracing for a possible attack from the Montana Legislature.

A bill - still being drafted - could nullify the local law that protects people from being fired from jobs or kicked out of homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Missoula City Council members Stacy Rye and Dave Strohmaier said many people are watching to see if the draft emerges, and if it does, they stand ready to defend local control and fend off infringements on the ordinance.

"At that point, they should look for a fight on their hands," Strohmaier said Thursday.

Said Rye: "We spent a lot of time on that in Missoula. A lot of people in Missoula love that ordinance."

Rye and Strohmaier sponsored the local law, the first in Montana to protect people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender from employment and housing discrimination. The pending bill reportedly would bar other communities in the state from adopting similar laws - and invalidate the one in Missoula.

According to the Legislative Services Division, the bill being requested by Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, aims to bar local governments from enacting anti-discrimination statutes that contain provisions in them that are not contained in state statutes. Sexual orientation is not included in state statutes.

Hansen did not return calls for comment. Dallas Erickson, though, a longtime morality crusader from Stevensville, said several groups including his HOME - Help Our Moral Environment - see the need for such a bill.

He said he did not have permission to share the name of the person who requested Hansen carry the legislation, and since a draft isn't yet available, he noted it's difficult to talk about the bill.

But Erickson, who fought the Missoula ordinance, said people who are gay want to "legitimize deviate sexual conduct" so the schools will teach homosexual sex and so gay people can marry. He opposes such efforts.

"They want to legitimize it and make it on par with normal sexuality the way we were created," Erickson said.

He and Tei Nash led the opposition to the Missoula ordinance, but never got a petition off the ground. They also lost a court fight to force the matter on the ballot for a vote by the people.

Erickson said the courts threw up roadblocks that "were all misinterpretations of the law," and he is disappointed in the Missoula courts system. "There's corruption at the lowest level to the highest level."

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The Montana Human Rights Network led the campaign here for the anti-discrimination ordinance. Network organizer and lobbyist Jamee Greer said supporters are patiently waiting to see a bill draft and aren't surprised they may have to defend the civil rights win in Missoula.

"We know that this was a hard-fought victory by the people of Missoula. There were hundreds of volunteer hours put into this campaign, which resulted in a 10-2 decision and demonstrated broad community support," Greer said.

Other communities are discussing similar ordinances, so the organization isn't only on the defense. It's also forging ahead to establish similar protections elsewhere.

"The Human Rights Network is going to work to prevent this ordinance from being overturned. We're also going to work to support other communities that want to see similar fair and inclusive policies in their cities as well," he said.

Councilman Strohmaier said he's heard from people in some of those communities who look to Missoula for leadership. A reversal would ripple statewide and be a stain against Montana's reputation, he said.

"I absolutely do not think that Montanans want to be known as a state that's occupied by folks who do not value civil rights and equality for all of our citizens. So again, whether it's intended or not, the consequences would be a significant black eye for the state of Montana," Strohmaier said.

Rye said it's also an ironic departure from the GOP's mantra of local control "and no meddling." If a hearing ends up happening, she said she'll be in Helena to testify.

Others, too, are closely following. Cynthia Wolken, an executive board member of the Missoula County Democrats, sent an e-mail to the group this week noting the need to alert people - and counties - to the possible legislation.

"Obviously, there are more questions than answers at this point regarding the substance, breadth and legality of the bill," Wolken wrote in part. She also recommended counties pay close attention. "Since this will restrict all counties from similar ordinances, I would strongly urge the county chairs to put this on their conference call agenda."

It isn't clear when a draft will be available, but the bill isn't at the head of the line, according to Legislative Services.

Also among the list of human rights bills being drawn up this year is one to "protect sexual orientation and gender identity and expression."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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