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030310 equality signatures
As University of Montana student Petra Brown signs a human rights petition, Andrea Marcoccio of Forward Montana uses a megaphone to try to get other people to sign on Tuesday on the UM campus. The petition calls for ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and for recognizing the relationships of all Montana couples. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

A single signature for equality nearly launched Bryce Bennett out of his shiny blue track suit Tuesday on the University of Montana Oval.

"She's signing up. That's so exciting," said Forward Montana's Bennett into a megaphone. "The rest of you should do that, too."

"She" was one of many folks on campus who signed a human rights petition during the past few weeks. It calls for ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as recognizing the relationships of all couples.

The team of folks decked out in blue, yellow, green and red track suits? That's the Equality Squad, a Forward Montana troop on the march for equality in Big Sky Country. The approach is fun, but the aim is serious.

"Our final goal as Forward Montana is some form of relationship recognition for all Montana couples. That's our highest goal," Bennett said.

Forward Montana is a political group mobilizing "a new generation of progressive leaders in Montana," and it combines activism with some goofiness. (Remember the pink bunnies who encouraged people to re-register to vote? That was Forward Montana, and Bennett said the bunnies might make a comeback in the future.)

The group is one of several tackling a more limited goal in the meantime. It's supporting the Missoula City Council on a proposed ordinance barring discrimination against LGBT folks in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations.

The ordinance would be the first of its kind in Montana, but one of 129 in cities and counties across the country. On the UM Oval on Tuesday, identifying the colorful outfits seemed a bigger hump to get over than supporting equality.

Tiana Jensen, a freshman from Circle, said it's obvious that everybody should be treated equally.

"I mean, it is America, after all," Jensen said.

Patrick Certain, a Forward Montana intern, wore a yellow track suit and yellow ski cap. Petition signers complimented the freshman political science student, but sometimes Certain said people ask him about the get-up.

"Are you a fisherman?"

Once, he said he stood next to a colleague wearing a green outfit. Then, a different question came up.

" ‘Are you guys Sprite promoters?' " Certain said. "We get some confusion sometimes, but hopefully we'll be a household name soon."

As an intern, Certain said he is learning the skills necessary to start and run a political action group. He's been collecting signatures the past three or four weeks, and on a good day, he gets some 60 people to sign. A bad day yields 30, and he's had just one angry denial.

Forward Montana's goal is 5,000 signatures from across the state.

After the Missoula City Council adopts the proposed ordinance, Bennett said Forward Montana will turn its focus to the state as a whole in preparation for bringing similar legislation to Helena in 2011.

***

One group has come out in opposition to the Missoula ordinance. Concerned Women for America of Montana state director Patti Kanduch said such legislation will hurt religious business owners who don't want to serve people who are gay or lesbian.

"These homosexuals, once they get this passed, they will go after people of faith whether it's Muslims, Christians, Jews," Kanduch said.

Many churches, such as the University Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Missoula, embrace LGBT folks. But Kanduch said she doesn't believe members of the LGBT community worship alongside her.

"If they are, then they're being disobedient to God," Kanduch said.

The Concerned Women is a national group that professes family values and religious liberty. Kanduch said it counts 1,200 to 1,500 members in Montana. She does not believe only a few people hold the group's views.

"Oh, no, no, no. We're in the majority, people who are against homosexuality," Kanduch said.

She said religious business owners have won battles in court but lost a lot of money in the fight.

She offered an example of someone she would want to keep out of a business.

"If I had a swanky restaurant, I wouldn't want some guy dressed in a dress just because he wanted to dress that way. I should have a right to say, ‘No. That isn't what I want,' " Kanduch said. "I want a man that's a man and a woman that's a woman. But you know what? There's other restaurants that wouldn't mind."

***

In Missoula so far, the only move to change the proposed ordinance has been a call to open the umbrella more widely.

Councilman Dick Haines has asked that veterans be added to the list of protected classes and said the move is more than a symbolic gesture.

"In my lifetime, I have heard some veterans who have been discriminated against," Haines said.

Councilwoman Stacy Rye, an ordinance sponsor, said she welcomed the addition from Haines. In a comment on MissoulaRedTape.com, she also threw down the gauntlet to political leaders in Washington, D.C.

"Congress should take note," wrote Rye in part. "If we can do a nondiscrimination policy with the military and veterans and gays, so can they."

The Montana Human Rights Network is working with Forward Montana, the Montana Equality Network, and the ACLU of Montana on the effort. Human Rights Network organizer Jamee Greer said he is reaching out to veterans about the proposal.

On its Web site, the Network notes 2008 poll results show wide support for equality. Some 55 percent of people polled favored including sexual orientation in the state's human rights law so that "gays and lesbians are protected from discrimination in the same way that women and minorities are protected," the report said.

Some 600 voters across the state were interviewed. But when it comes to discrimination, Greer said poll numbers aren't the bottom line.

"People don't have a constitutional right to discriminate. That's something we're trying to drive home," Greer said.

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

 

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