HELENA - Gays and lesbians will be shielded by state law against hate crimes if a proposal from Attorney General Joe Mazurek makes it through the 1999 Legislature.
"We hope this would prevent people from committing what are already criminals acts against another person, solely because that person is gay or lesbian," said Mazurek. "What we're trying to do is ensure that people don't become victims simply for something they believe in or a lifestyle they lead."
The push for legislation battling hate crimes was stirred up this year after the brutal murder in Laramie, Wyo., of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was openly gay. Several human rights groups in Montana have said the crime committed in Laramie could have happened in Montana and anti-hate crime legislation is necessary to quash any notion that such crimes are acceptable.
Mazurek has asked for two changes to the current hate crimes law. First, sexual orientation would join the protected ranks of race, creed, religion, color, national origin and involvement in civil rights.
Malicious intimidation or harassment against people for those reasons or affiliation with such groups is now a "hate crime." The attorney general, a Democrat, also will ask that a provision be added to the law allowing a stronger criminal sentences for those who commit a crime and choose their victim for those same reasons.
Similar attempts have failed in past legislative sessions. But this Legislature may be more willing to make the change, one Republican leader said.
"I want to keep an open mind about that legislation," said Senate Majority Leader John Harp, R-Kalispell.
Harp said nobody could condone what happened to Shepard and steps should be taken to ensure the same types of things don't happen in Montana. Republican Gov. Marc Racicot has said he would sign anti-hate crime legislation that protects homosexuals.
But the proposed changes to hate-crime law will not come without opposition. Arlette Randash, a Helena resident who works as a lobbyist for the socially conservative Eagle Forum, said that organization will fight against the measures, for a couple of reasons.
First, she said, the changes are not needed.
"If you reflect back on what happened in Wyoming, the people who perpetrated that crime were able to be brought to justice under existing laws," Randash said.
But what is most striking to Randash is what she regards as further promotion of the "homosexual agenda."
"I believe that hate crime legislation, in large part, is being used as a front to move the homosexual forward so it is accepted by people as an accepted standard in our community," she added. Plus, Randash said, "We don't give people special status based on behavior alone."