Groups Push Whitefish for Non-discrimination Ordinance

City Council to discuss potential of adopting new law at Jan. 5 meeting

By Tristan Scott

WHITEFISH – Montana human rights groups and some residents from across the state are calling on the Whitefish City Council to pass a law shielding residents and visitors from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Montana Human Rights Network and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana have asked the Council to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Council is set to discuss the issue at its Jan. 5 meeting at 7:10 p.m. at City Hall, but has not prepared a draft ordinance and will not put the issue to a vote.

City Manager Chuck Stearns said consideration of an ordinance would have to be on a future agenda, which would include a public hearing.

“There is no consideration of adopting a NDO on the Jan. 5 agenda nor is there a draft ordinance in the packet for people to review, so it could not be adopted on Jan. 5,” Stearns explained in an e-mail. “If the City Council wants to consider a NDO in the future, they can instruct staff at the Jan. 5 meeting to prepare a Non-Discrimination Ordinance and set a schedule for considering the adoption of a NDO. So we will likely get some direction from the City Council at the Jan. 5 meeting as to what direction they want to go in the future.”

In addition to a mutual letter from the Montana Human Rights Network and American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, more than 30 residents wrote council regarding the adoption of a non-discrimination ordinance. Most of the letters were in support of such a law, while others raised concerns about First Amendment violations.

The advocacy groups say that under Montana state law, LGBT people can be fired from their job or denied housing or accommodations without recourse. With passage of such an ordinance, Whitefish would join other cities around the state including Missoula, Helena, Butte-Silver Bow and Bozeman.

The issue comes in the wake of renewed publicity for the National Policy Institute, whose president, Richard B. Spencer, set up headquarters in Whitefish several years ago after moving from Washington, D.C.

In early December, the Whitefish City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting diversity and tolerance in the community, taking a stance on the contentious issue but stopping short of enacting anti-discrimination legislation.

The council passed the good faith resolution after local residents turned out in droves urging adoption of an anti-hate or non-discrimination ordinance protecting the community from groups like Spencer’s National Policy Institute.

The not-for-profit group bills itself as “an independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world,” and Spencer advocates “a White Ethno-State on the American continent.”

Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director at the Montana Human Rights Network, said a non-discrimination ordinance is timely given Spencer’s presence in Whitefish.

“This non-discrimination ordinance is particularly important at this time because of the presence of an international hate group headquartered in Whitefish,” she said. “Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute advocates discrimination and hate not only toward people of color and Jewish people, but LGBT people – whom he calls ‘gross’ and ‘unnatural.’ In response to Spencer’s activism the community called on the Council to take a stance in favor of diversity and the Council took the first step of passing a resolution. The Whitefish City staff recommended the Council consider such an ordinance as a way to respond to community outcry over Spencer.”

For Spencer’s part, he insists that he is not promoting NPI’s views locally, but rather uses the Internet to publish them, and he denies that the “think-tank” is a hate group.

But his presence in Whitefish has enraged some residents, and the organizations are calling on the Council to give legal protections from discrimination by passing a local LGBT non-discrimination ordinance not included in state law.

“Part of the role of government is to make sure all its citizens and visitors are treated with dignity and respect,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director at the ACLU of Montana. “The Whitefish City Council could help make that a reality for more people by passing a local LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.”

The organizations will also advocate adding LGBT people to this list of protected classes in the state’s Human Rights Act when the legislative session begins Jan. 5 in Helena.

One resident wrote that she agreed with the resolution supporting diversity in Whitefish, but that a good-faith resolution does not go far enough.

“While I applaud the recent anti-discrimination resolution adopted by the Council, I feel it falls short of an enforceable ordinance and has no consequences for those choosing to ignore or defy it. It is time to offer protection under the law for people in the LGBTQ community so that they no longer need to be afraid of losing their job or their place of residence because of discrimination,” Susan Seaman wrote in a letter.