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Stop thinking bathrooms for a minute. Think condominiums.

Why? The equality ordinance, of course.

In February, Missoula City Council members Dave Strohmaier and Stacy Rye proposed an ordinance to protect people from discrimination in their jobs and homes, including inequities based on "actual or perceived ... sexual orientation, gender identity or expression."

Opponents raised fears about unsavory outcomes, such as criminal offenses in bathrooms. But around the country, similar laws that protect people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender from housing and job discrimination are becoming more common, and some have been around for decades.

The results? Apparently mostly quiet. Fears of upticks in crime or frivolous lawsuits seem to be unfounded. In some cases, though, people such as transgender women banned from dressing rooms have used such laws to open those doors.

In Missoula, Councilman Strohmaier has heard stories about people who weren't allowed to buy condominiums because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And Rye said there's good reason to add LGBT folks to a law that already protects others' civil rights. Why?

"So the LGBT community feels safe and respected when using public facilities, looking for a job or trying to find a place to live," Rye said. "That's all. It's really simple."

***

Missoula's proposed ordinance covers discrimination in the workplace and public accommodations, which include places such as restaurants, hotels, salons, bathrooms, golf courses, ice cream parlors and hospitals.

It heads to the City Council for a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, and the council is likely to adopt it sooner or later. When it does, Missoula will join a legion of other communities with similar ordinances.

Laws that protect people's jobs based on gender identity aren't uncommon. The Human Rights Campaign, a national group pushing LGBT rights, counts 129 local government ordinances that prohibit such discrimination; it notes 60 of the Fortune 100 largest businesses do as well.

So far, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is covered by laws that protect people who are transgender, according to Lambda Legal, another national organization working on behalf of LGBT rights.

Lambda transgender rights attorney Dru Levasseur said some laws protect people only in areas of employment - and not housing. But he said the protections are wider than some people might imagine, and aren't limited to LGBT folks.

In New York, Levasseur said a masculine-looking woman who wasn't trans got hauled out of a restaurant restroom and used an anti-discrimination law to successfully file a claim against the restaurant.

"It really includes a lot more people than you think," Levasseur said.

In many cases, equality ordinances are snoozers. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, a plan to ban pit bulls in the city raised hackles and drew comments for months, said Councilwoman Lynne Branigan. The anti-discrimination ordinance?

"In our city, it came before the public three times, and we received no comments either for or against," Branigan said. "It's just been a non-issue."

Council Bluffs adopted its ordinance a couple of years ago to be in line with state law, and Councilman Matt Walsh couldn't point to any related activity in the community since.

"The outcome has been no outcome. I don't know that we've had any cases filed that dealt with gender or sexual orientation," Walsh said. "I think it's (been) pretty much a non-event."

In Decatur, Georgia, city manager Peggy Merriss said commissioners adopted their ordinance in 2000 and plan to update the language in it this year. She said no one has filed related lawsuits or even aired complaints.

"It's been totally a non-issue for us," Merriss said. "It really truly has not been an issue."

***

Even one of the most staunch opponents of those laws can't point to increases in frivolous lawsuits or sexual predation. Still, Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright said such ordinances lead the country down the wrong track.

"We have a constitutional protection for religious freedom in our First Amendment," Wright said. "There is not a constitutional protection for sexual orientation, and yet judges and city councils and others are acting as if sexual orientation trumps religious freedom."

The Concerned Women aim to bring biblical principles to public policy, and the Montana office opposes the Missoula ordinance. It's one member of Notmybathroom.com, a group that formed to defeat the local ordinance in large part because of fear sexual offenders will prey on women and children in bathrooms and locker rooms.

Wright couldn't point to places that have counted increases in sexual offenses because of such laws, but she said such data is beside the point.

"It doesn't go back to numbers," Wright said. "It goes back to the issue that people will have legal rights that will trump other people's rights. The right of a woman or a girl to feel safe in a fitting room, a locker, a restroom, their rights will be trumped by a person who is claiming their sexual orientation right has legal protection."

She noted as troubling a couple of specific examples where transgender women fought for access to dressing rooms. In one Philadelphia case in 2008, a woman denied access to a fitting room planned to file a complaint against the department store, whose manager agreed to train employees to grant equal access.

Wright said one big reason Concerned Women opposes such laws is because the group does not want local ordinances to be used as stepping stones toward making gay marriage legal and teaching it in the public schools.

***

In Missoula, the proposed bill isn't about marriage or bathrooms, although certainly some advocates who support the local ordinance also support gay marriage or some form of relationship recognition. But the Montana Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and the council couldn't change that even if it wanted to, said city attorney Jim Nugent.

Laws against sexual crimes, such as "peeping persons," remain in full force. The ordinance doesn't touch them, and Nugent said no current law addresses who can use what restroom now.

"I've had lots of women tell me they use the men's bathroom," Nugent said.

Someone such as Bree Sutherland, on the other hand, might be able to keep her job. Sutherland, a trans woman and advocate, said she was let go from a job when she lived in Kalispell because of discrimination. She'd overheard a conversation with a supervisor that tipped her off.

The University of Montana student (see related story) said the ordinance won't "bring about the end of the world," and she hopes it's a first in Montana. She said it will serve as a tool to teach Missoulians about the LGBT community and offer all people safe access to public places and equal opportunity for jobs, or basic human rights.

"It's something that the ordinance really will ensure for everyone," Sutherland said.

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

 

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