HELENA – The state House moved Tuesday to undo a Missoula city ordinance that extends discrimination protections to gays and a Missoula County initiative that orders police to make marijuana crimes their lowest priority.
Republicans targeted the local policies in a pair of votes Tuesday, pitting the GOP majority against the liberal stronghold of the Montana Democratic Party.
House Bill 516 would undo Missoula’s local ordinance protecting residents from housing and employment discrimination based on “actual or perceived” sexual orientation and gender identity. It cleared its first key House hurdle with a 60-39 vote.
Republicans backing the measure argued that establishing discrimination protections should be left to the statewide anti-discrimination law that protects for the likes of race and religion — but not sexual orientation.
Democrats — especially those from Missoula — were angered that the Republican majority would undermine the more liberal voters of Missoula, who established the local discrimination protections last year after seeing such attempts fail at the Legislature. They noted that local ordinances in other places against texting and driving or stiffer DUI enforcement dispatch with statewide policy but are not being targeted.
“The clear intention of the majority of supporters who testified in judiciary committee called for the imposition of a particular ultra-conservative religious perspective through state law,” said Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “One supporter declared homosexuals an abomination of God deserving of death.”
Republican attorney Ken Peterson said the Missoula ordinance has none of the same due process and appeal procedures that appear in the statewide Montana Human Rights Act.
He said those accused of discrimination should know the rules are the same statewide and have a way to appeal findings to the court system. Other Republicans argued that it is unfair to extend the protections to gays.
But opponents of the bill were not convinced, especially given that state law does protect disabled people and others while leaving out what they described as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They argued the bill is an attack on a minority that struggles with a high rate of suicide.
“This bill looks to extinguish that dim light of hope and eliminate an existing right for LGBT Missoulians,” said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “This bill tells them they are less human than other Montanans. It is exactly this message that drives young LGBT people to the depression that makes them consider killing themselves every day.”
It was a tough day for Missoula on another measure.
With a 68-31 initial vote Tuesday, the House also moved a plan to override Missoula County’s initiative making marijuana crimes the lowest priority for police. It was brought to the Legislature with the help of Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, a Democrat, but it was the Republican majority in the House that made the measure possible.
Missoula County voters originally approved the initiative with 55 percent of the vote back in 2006. County commissioners later amended the measure so felony amounts of marijuana would not be included as the lowest priority.
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