A Senate committee voted along party lines Friday for a bill to nullify Missoula’s 2010 ordinance that protects residents from discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender and gender expression.
Missoula adopted the ordinance in April 2010.
By a 5-4 vote, the five Republicans on the Senate Local Government Committee sent House Bill 516, by Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, to the Senate floor for debate. All four Democrats opposed the bill.
First, the panel approved an amendment by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, to strike the words “resolution” and “policy” from the bill to clarify that the bill applies only to local government ordinances like Missoula’s.
It would exclude anti-discrimination resolutions like the one adopted by the city of Bozeman.
Democrats criticized the bill.
“I really oppose this bill,” said Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, a former city manager. “I think it is interfering on the legal rights of the local government by the state government. I know if the federal government were to impose something like this on the state government, we would go ballistic.”
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, said local governments have been allowed to adopt local anti-smoking ordinances and those to curb drunken driving.
But when an ordinance comes up to “respect people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” and “it’s suddenly an issue,” he said. “I find it disheartening and quite frankly shameful.”
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, defended the right “not to be overregulated.”
He said he has heard comments from people asking about whether a business, under the ordinance, could legally keep “a certain sector” out of a multi-stall public restrooms. It was an apparent reference to transgender men using women’s restrooms, an issue raised by some people testifying against the bill in hearings.
“As a father with three young daughters—they’re grown up now—I find that a little troublesome,” Tutvedt said.
Wittich said he struggled with the bill because he is “a tremendous advocate for individual rights and local control.”
“But the fact is the state occupies the field on human rights matters,” said Wittich, an attorney.
Wittich asked why the state Human Rights Act couldn’t be expanded to include what the Missoula ordinance contains on a statewide basis. But he said that was not the bill that was before the committee Friday.
The House Judiciary Committee tabled just such a measure, HB514 by Rep. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, earlier in the session.
“To me, it’s simply a matter of respect for the law, and the law is clear that if somebody wants to make a discrimination claim, they follow the Human Rights Act,” Wittich said.
Augare said he found it ironic that Wittich talked about respecting the law, but wants to overturn an ordinance, “which is pretty much law.”