Amid effusive community support, the city of Whitefish on Monday night joined a short list of Montana cities to usher in a non-discrimination ordinance, extending unmet civil rights protections to residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In front of citizens who lined up to advocate on behalf of the equality ordinance, the council voted unanimously in favor of a measure that shields people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Under existing state and federal civil rights laws, those protections are furnished on individuals based on race, national origin, religion, sex, physical and mental disability, age, and familial status.
However, attempts to extend those same protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have been unsuccessful before the Montana Legislature.
Whitefish City Councilor Frank Sweeney, who recently asked for the non-discrimination ordinance to be placed on the council’s March 21 agenda after city officials spent the past year researching its legal nuances, commended those in attendance for closing an equality gap in their community.
“The testimony tonight reflects the community that I live in and that I want to be part of,” Sweeney said. “I could not be prouder of this community and the people that showed up here tonight.”
Testimony at Monday night’s council meeting drew loud applause as one after another community members described their support for the non-discrimination ordinance, and praising the city council for its proactive work in adopting the measure.
“We are in very troubled, divisive times, and for this council to take the step of saying ‘not here and not in this town’ is really worthy of admiration,” said Whitefish attorney Brian Muldoon. “We can either take a stand in favor of opening our arms or closing our fists, and I am really proud to be part of a community that is opening its arms.”
Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter, a nonprofit that provides services to victims of domestic and sexual violence, said resistance to similar ordinances across the state are the result of misinformed, fear-based perceptions about sexual crimes.
“This is social change in action,” Shaw said. “This helps create a community where we don’t even need non-discrimination ordinances, because there is no discrimination.”
In Whitefish, calls for a non-discrimination erupted in November 2014, when some community members asked the council to take a stand against bigotry, hatred and prejudice in Whitefish by enacting a “no-hate ordinance.”
Citing concerns about First Amendment rights violations, the council stopped short of introducing such an ordinance, and instead enacted a good-faith resolution affirming its commitment to diversity and inclusion, with the promise that it would take a hard look at a non-discrimination ordinance.
Under the newly adopted ordinance, people claiming discrimination may bring a civil claim to municipal court, but first must establish that the Montana Human Rights Bureau will not pursue the case. If the bureau does not, the person has 90 days to file in municipal court. People alleging discrimination can seek monetary damages up to the jurisdictional limit of $12,000, injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees. There are no criminal remedies or penalties.
Whitefish is not the first Montana community to enact a non-discrimination ordinance.
Missoula made history in 2010 when it became the first Montana city to adopt a non-discrimination law, while Helena and Butte followed in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Bozeman adopted a non-discrimination ordinance in June 2014, and while five residents challenged the citywide measure in court, a judge dismissed the suit in favor of the city.
Both Dillon and Billings rejected such non-discrimination ordinances in 2014.
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