HELENA – All in one day, Montana lawmakers heard testimony, voted against and then tabled a bill that would provide protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and other people in the state.
Sen. Christine Kaufmann of Helena introduced Senate Bill 179 on Friday in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The openly lesbian Democrat told lawmakers Friday the world is changing and the law needs to keep up.
"This is adding to the human rights law people who are experiencing discrimination," she said. "It does not take liberties away from people."
Under the measure, the words "gender identity and expression and sexual orientation" would be added to the state's Human Rights Act. The act currently bans discrimination based on race, creed, religion, color, sex, physical or mental disability, age or national origin in situations such as housing or employment.
Supporters and opponents lined up to testify, with gay and transgender people telling lawmakers their stories.
Thousands of transgender people in the state face discrimination, said Shawn Francis of Bozeman.
"I'm afraid to stand in front of you today and tell you I'm transgender," Francis said. "I'm afraid to tell you how it feels to lose a job or to have to couch-surf for three months at a time because I can't find housing in my city. Something needs to change, and it needs to happen now."
But Dawnette Osen said that while God calls people to love one another, God does not call people to approve what she called "sinful acts."
"I can love them but not bake them a wedding cake," Osen said.
Bozeman Republican Sen. Jedediah Hinkle asked Kaufmann about instances in other states in which business owners refusing to bake wedding cakes for gay couples have been taken to court. "What safeguards do you propose, believe there will be, for people of faith who may disagree that would protect them from these types of lawsuits," he asked.
Kaufmann replied "people with businesses that personally want to discriminate? Should they be allowed not to serve a black person?"
The bill failed along party lines in the Republican-led committee by a 7-5 vote just after two hours of testimony.
Kaufmann said after the hearing that she wasn't too optimistic about the bill's chances based on the vote and opposing testimony, although she said it would have broader support on the Senate floor. "Some seem to be stuck while the world moves on," she said.
Three Montana cities – Bozeman, Helena and Missoula – along with Butte-Silver Bow County have passed similar anti-discrimination ordinances in the past four years.