BUTTE — Butte-Silver Bow could follow Missoula and Helena by enacting an ordinance barring discrimination in housing, jobs and many public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The council’s Judiciary Committee could take an initial step Wednesday night by recommending that such an ordinance be introduced. If it does, the full 12-member council would decide whether to have a proposed law drafted.
Chief Executive Matt Vincent said recently it is too early to determine what form the ordinance could take, but he had asked County Attorney Eileen Joyce to look into the issue. He called it a matter of “basic human rights.”
Joyce said Tuesday she has looked at Missoula’s ordinance as a possible model to go by if the council decides to pursue the measure.
Commissioner Bill Andersen, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he has gotten a few emails from people concerned about such an ordinance but does not foresee it becoming a contentious issue before the council.
But, he said, “How it is written — the language — could lead to controversy, maybe.”
Although Montana law bars discrimination based on several factors such as race, religion and a person’s sex, it does not include specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Numerous bills have been introduced in the Montana Legislature over the past decade seeking those protections for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, but they have not passed.
In 2004, Montana adopted a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages from being conducted or recognized in the state. The referendum was favored by 67 percent of Montana voters.
In 2010, Missoula became the first Montana community to pass an ordinance barring discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The ordinance defines public accommodations as places that cater or offer services, goods or facilities to the general public, including hotels and motels, restaurants, taverns, campgrounds, bathrooms, theaters, swimming pools, ice cream parlors and numerous other places.
Helena adopted a similar ordinance last December, although it includes a provision saying in places where people ordinarily appear in the nude, people must use the facility designed for their anatomical sex.
That provision was meant to ease concerns of some that voyeurs or pedophiles would use the ordinance to gain access to women’s restrooms.
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The Missoula City Council passed its ordinance 10-2, while Helena city commissioners voted unanimously for their ordinance.
But neither was passed quietly.
There was significant community support for the proposals in both cities, including numerous groups, churches and businesses. Council meetings on the issue drew big crowds, including numerous supporters.
But there were vocal opponents, as well.
Some opponents said they feared expensive litigation for the city and businesses, and some said there was not enough evidence of discrimination to warrant such an ordinance.
In the 2011 session of the Montana Legislature, a bill that would have repealed Missoula’s law and prevented similar local ordinances passed the House.
Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said that bill was later rejected by Republicans who led the Senate and was scuttled on a strong bipartisan vote that sent it back to a committee where it died.
Zupanic said the Missoula and Helena laws both allow people who feel they are discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity to file a complaint in municipal court.
She said she is not aware of anyone who has filed a complaint so far, but believes that is largely because people and businesses want to comply with the ordinance.
The proposed ordinance in Butte is being sought by the Butte chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Members hope the ordinance will not only protect more people from discrimination but also send a message to the Legislature.
Zupanic said state lawmakers did not pursue a repeal of such ordinances in the 2013 session.
“We hope that is an indication that cities could and should be responsive,” she said.