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041410 dallas erickson mg.jpg
Dallas Erickson, center, protests the nondiscrimination ordinance in front of the Missoula City Council Chambers on Monday night. The council passed the ordinance over protests from Erickson and groups such as NotMyBathroom.com. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Breaking ground in Montana, the Missoula City Council on Tuesday adopted the first equality ordinance in the state that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Most of us can't remember civil rights in action," said Councilwoman Stacy Rye, an ordinance sponsor, during the wee hours of the morning. "This is it for us. This is our lifetimes."

In front of citizens who sat through a nearly seven-hour meeting, the council voted 10-2 in favor of the measure protecting people from housing and employment discrimination based on "actual or perceived ... sexual orientation, gender identity or expression."

The meeting was monumental for more reasons than one. One longtime city official said it drew the largest crowd of any council meeting in at least 30 years. Members of the public told personal stories, and councilors responded with passion and eloquence and a call for Missoula to lead.

"Hopefully our actions tonight will ripple through Montana from Libby to Billings, from Dillon to Wolf Point, and eventually to the capital in Helena," said Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who also sponsored the ordinance.

In an emphatic sermon, Councilman Jon Wilkins told religious leaders who opposed the proposal to reconsider their views. He said he could see fear in some people's demeanors, even in the shaking of one man's hands when he spoke to the council.

"That tells you right there there's been discrimination," Wilkins said. "I believe in God and all that too. I go to church. ... But I don't believe in a God that tells me that I should discriminate against somebody because of who they are or what they are or anything like that. ... That's why I'm going to support this ordinance. Shame on you churches that can't see the light. You'd better start looking to save yourselves."

Councilman Jason Wiener said he, like Wilkins, grew up with religion in his home. In fact, over his bedroom door a Bible verse was posted, Isaiah 61:1. It speaks of binding up the broken hearted and proclaiming liberty to captives, and Wiener said that evening's work was the best example of living the message.

He also warned opponents against trying to repeal the ordinance. In 2004, he said Missoula precincts bucked the state and opposed the constitutional ban on gay marriage by 55 percent to 45 percent. The generation growing up and voting since then is even more in favor of equality, he said.

"This is not going to be repealed. I'm proud to vote for this," Wiener said.

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Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard, though, said she had been struggling with the ordinance. She doesn't believe anyone should be discriminated against, but Hellegaard also said the "poorly written" measure will not withstand a fight in the courts.

"I don't believe the way this ordinance is written is going to provide any protection to the GLBT community," Hellegaard said. "It's going to give them a false sense of security and the bottom is going to drop out on them."

Although he too questioned whether the ordinance would stand up in court, Councilman Dick Haines voted in favor of it, prompting supporters to describe the win as bipartisan. Haines could not be reached later Tuesday for comment.

Councilwoman Renee Mitchell said she hadn't been able to open the ordinance's most recent draft on her computer, and wanted more time to offer amendments. At the meeting, she offered a couple that failed, such as adding "celibate" as part of the "sexual orientation" definition and taking out "bathrooms" from the list of public accommodations where people are protected. The latter drew strong pushback from a couple of citizens.

Early in the evening, Mayor John Engen warned people he would recess the meeting if the audience clapped for anyone - for or against the proposal. When the final vote was taken, the pent-up applause unleashed and many supporters who remained in the room offered the council a standing ovation.

Councilors Hellegaard and Mitchell voted against it. The following councilors voted yes: Strohmaier, Wiener, Pam Walzer, Roy Houseman, Rye, Bob Jaffe, Wilkins, Haines, Ed Childers and Marilyn Marler.

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

 

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