HELENA — At a time when gays have been gaining victories across the country, the Republican Party in Montana still wants to make homosexuality illegal.
The party adopted an official platform in June that keeps a long-held position in support of making homosexual acts illegal, a policy adopted after the Montana Supreme Court struck down such laws in 1997.
The fact that it's still the official party policy more than 12 years later, despite a tidal shift in public attitudes since then and the party's own pledge of support for individual freedoms, has exasperated some GOP members.
"I looked at that and said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" state Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, said last week. "Should it get taken out? Absolutely. Does anybody think we should be arresting homosexual people? If you take that stand, you really probably shouldn't be in the Republican Party."
Gay rights have been rapidly advancing nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas' sodomy law in 2003's Lawrence v. Texas decision. Gay marriage is now allowed in five states and Washington, D.C., a federal court recently ruled the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy unconstitutional, and even a conservative tea party group in Montana ousted its president over an anti-gay exchange in Facebook.
But going against the grain is the Montana GOP statement, which falls under the "Crime" section of the GOP platform. It states: "We support the clear will of the people of Montana expressed by legislation to keep homosexual acts illegal."
Montana GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood said that has been the position of the party since the state Supreme Court struck down state laws criminalizing homosexuality in 1997 in the case of Gryczan v. Montana.
Nobody has ever taken the initiative to change it and so it's remained in the party platform, Greenwood said. The matter has never even come up for discussion, he said.
"There had been at the time, and still is, a substantial portion of Republican legislators that believe it is more important for the Legislature to make the law instead of the Supreme Court," Greenwood said.
Critics say the policy is a toothless statement, the effect of which is simply to make gays feel excluded. A University of Montana law professor says Montana's 1997 case and the U.S. Supreme Court's Lawrence decision means there's no real chance for the state GOP to act on its position.
"To me, that statement legally is hollow," said constitutional specialist Jack Tuholske. "The principle under Gryczan and under Lawrence, that's the fundamental law of the land and the Legislature can't override the Constitution. It might express their view, but as far as a legal reality, it's a hollow view and can't come to pass."
Montana Human Rights Network organizer Kim Abbott said the GOP platform statement does not represent the attitudes of most Montanans, and it shows that the party is out of touch with the prevalent view of the people they are supposed to represent.
"It speaks volumes to the lesbian and gay community how they are perceived by the Republican Party," Abbott said. "It would be nice if Republicans that understand that gay people are human beings would stand up and say they don't agree with that. But I don't know how likely that is."
Brueggeman suspects that the vast majority of the party believes, as he does, that the Republican party should remove statement. It's against every conservative principle for limited government and issues like this exemplify how a political party can interfere with the relationship between lawmakers and their constituents.
"I just hope it's something that's so sensitive that people don't want to touch it," he said. "Even if there wasn't a Supreme Court decision, does anyone really believe that it should be illegal?"