HELENA - The House took the first steps Tuesday toward striking down Missoula's 2010 ordinance that bans discrimination against city residents based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Missoula's Democratic legislators were infuriated by the passage of House Bill 516, by Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre. Her bill passed 60-39 and faces a final House vote before heading to the Senate.
Sixty Republicans voted for it. All 32 Democrats voted opposed it, joined by seven Republicans. One Republican was absent.
It was the second bill that passed Tuesday to nullify a locally adopted policy in Missoula. Earlier, the House banned enactment of local initiatives such as the one Missoula County voters approved in 2006 to make marijuana crimes the lowest priority of law enforcement. (See related story.)
"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 Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.
"It seems that each day, there's a new attack on Missoula," said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. "Each one of our local ordinances is being paraded in front of the body for judgment."
The city's lawmakers also voiced sadness over the effort to dismantle Missoula's effort to protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders from various forms of discrimination.
"Leave us alone," said Rep. Sue Malek, D-Missoula. "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?"
For their part, the few Republicans who spoke on the bill talked legal issues and generally avoided talking about the specifics of the Missoula anti-discrimination ordinance.
As sponsor, Hansen said HB516 would prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances or policies that seek to protect residents from real or perceived discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender as Missoula did through an ordinance and Bozeman through a policy.
She said the Missoula City Council adopted the ordinance and provided an enforcement mechanism that fell outside of that in the Montana Human Rights Act.
"It would apply retroactively to the city of Missoula's ordinance in order to keep all businesses and all entities on a level playing field," Hansen said. "All discrimination claims will have to go through the human rights procedures as designated by the Montana Human Rights (Commission)."
Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, said the bill is consistent with state law. The attorney said cities with self-governing powers, like Missoula and Billings, can take certain actions, but others like Missoula's ordinance are precluded.
Legislators from Missoula and other cities disagreed. They saw it as an attack on Missoula's attempt to protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders from discrimination.
"Our community is filled with possibly the biggest gay and lesbian population in the state," said Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. "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."
Sands said she is proud to be part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and told the House: "There are thousands of ‘us' living in Montana. We are your neighbors, your work colleagues, we are part of your families, we sit in the pew next to you at church, and we serve in elective offices with you."
Along with other LGBT Montanans and their families, Sands said she was claiming her constitutional right to equality and justice under Montana's constitutional provision that says: "The dignity of the human being is inviolable. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws."
"It doesn't say, except for gay people," she said.
Rep. James Knox, R-Billings, however, said all 100 representatives are equal and debate with each other because they are people, not because they are homosexual or heterosexual, black or white.
"Our current laws include everyone," he said.
Bennett, however, told how Missoula's enactment of the ordinance gave LGBT residents of Missoula hope that is now being dashed.
"It gave those young (LGBT) people who had been beaten up, yelled at and discriminated against day in and day out the dimmest light of hope that maybe someday they might be equal to other Montanans, maybe someday," he said. "But this bill looks to extinguish that dim light of hope and eliminate an existing right for LGBT Missoulians."
Republicans opposing HB516 were Reps. Mike Cuffe of Eureka, Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, Steve Gibson of East Helena, Brian Hoven of Great Falls, Harry Klock of Harlowton, Jeff Welborn of Dillon and Max Yates of Butte.