DILLON — The three Dillon City Council members considering whether a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance should go before the full council failed, again, to make a decision at a crowded meeting Tuesday.
The Judiciary Committee, a subcommittee of Dillon’s City Council, voted unanimously on Tuesday at a conference room at the University of Montana-Western campus to table the nondiscrimination ordinance put forth by Dillon’s PFLAG.
PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is a national organization with chapters in cities and towns all over the country.
If passed, the ordinance would protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identification and sexual orientation in housing, employment and accommodation services, such as taverns and hotels.
This is the second time the Judiciary Committee couldn’t make a decision on the controversial proposal. About 100 people showed up for this meeting and public comment, filled with impassioned speeches on both sides, lasted for about an one and a half hours.
Council member Raymond Graham said he wanted to table the vote because he needs more time to research questions the public raised.
“It’s hard to sit through two hours of public comment and figure out what to do,” he said.
Graham said at last month’s meeting he wanted to table the vote because he needed more time to research the issue. He said after the meeting that new questions were raised in his mind after listening to all the public comment Tuesday evening.
But concerns that were brought up at Tuesday night's meeting were largely repeated from last month’s standing room only Judiciary Committee meeting, where he also said he needed time to research the issue.
Those against the ordinance said Tuesday that, if passed, they fear it will bring lawsuits against employers or landlords or against the city itself. A Butte lawyer, Anita Milanovich, traveled the 65 miles to Dillon to tell the council members the ordinance is “unlawful.”
“Civil rights are a discussion reserved for the state Legislature. It’s not appropriate for local governments,” she said.
But four cities and one county – Butte-Silver Bow – have passed the ordinance in Montana already. Missoula passed it as long ago as 2011. Bozeman passed it in 2014 and is the only Montana city to get sued, but the suit was dismissed.
Currently, Montana law bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, but does not protect based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Another worry reiterated at Tuesday night’s meeting was that, if passed, it would encourage pedophilia inside a woman’s bathroom or locker room facility.
Valerie Coulter, victims services coordinator for a Dillon-based nonprofit serving victims of domestic violence and sexual assualt, said 93 percent of child victims know their perpetrator. Coulter supports the ordinance.
Melainya Ryan, incoming president of Dillon's PFLAG, said her group feels that many of the concerns raised by those opposing the ordinance are “fear-based.”
“The chances of that (an antidiscrimination ordinance encouraging pedophilia in public spaces) are slim to none,” Ryan said.
Council member Mary Jo O’Rourke said during the committee discussion she thought the three should vote to move the proposed ordinance forward. O’Rourke tried to encourage the committee to vote in favor of moving the proposal forward to the next step at last month’s meeting as well. But council members Daniel Nye and Graham opposed O’Rourke both last month as well as Tuesday night.
If the Judiciary Committee eventually votes yes on the proposed ordinance, the committee would then hash out what the ordinance would say in official language before it goes before the full Dillon City Council to take up the issue. That could take up to six months, O’Rourke said.
Mayor Michael Klakken weighed in, saying he is neither for nor against the proposed ordinance but he expressed fear that the city would get sued if it passes the ordinance. He also appeared to indicate he doesn’t see it as necessary.
“There are a lot of other people not in those groups (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer). This group wants to be part of a special class,” he said.
Klakken also said that he has been discriminated against as a white male, though he didn’t elaborate on how.
While most of the voices involved in the discussion were middle-aged or older, a few Western students contributed to the debate. All of them said they were for the ordinance.
Sarah Woomer, 22, a senior at Western, got up and told the room she is gay.
“I joke about living in the closet. I’ve done it long enough and I shouldn’t have to do that anymore,” she told the room.
Woomer told The Montana Standard she has seen subtle discrimination on campus, from professors and students alike, toward students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
“A lot of what I see on campus are derogatory comments,” she said. “We are the way we are. I wouldn’t be gay, honestly, if I could change it because then I wouldn’t have to go through stuff like this.”