HELENA — A Senate panel agreed Friday it is time to remove an obsolete anti-gay law from the books — a move that surprised gay rights advocates at the Capitol separately dealing with proposed changes to discrimination laws.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 to endorse a bill that removes from the books a Montana law declaring homosexual acts illegal, sending the proposal to the full Senate. The language remains in the code even though the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1997.
Two Republicans on the panel sided with Democrats on the issue — even though the Montana GOP's official platform still supports the law.
The language is not enforceable, but efforts to repeal it have failed many times over the years. The measure faces a long road to get through the full Senate, and then would face a House tilted even more in favor of conservative Republicans.
"This is obviously the first hurdle, but we are excited," said Kim Abbott of the Montana Human Rights Network. "We think reason, the rule of law and the Montana Constitution prevailed."
Advocates believe keeping the antiquated language in the law sends a message that gays and lesbians should be treated differently.
Another legislative panel, the House Judiciary Committee, heard testimony Friday on two opposing bills involving gay rights.
Gay rights advocates were pushing to expand discrimination protection statewide — while conservative religious groups were backing a bill that aims to repeal a Missoula ordinance extending discrimination protection in that city based on sexual orientation.
The contentious nature of the issue and very short hearings on the two bills frayed nerves, as many who drove from out of town to testify were told there wasn't enough time due to the House committee's workload.
Rep. Edith McClafferty, a Butte Democrat, told the panel it is time to change the state's discrimination law to include "gender identity or expression" and "sexual orientation" among the groups protected under the law. House Bill 514 would make sure the groups have the right to file complaints with the Montana Human Rights Bureau.
"These are our sons, daughters, neighbors and constituents, and they are entitled to live a life free from discrimination." McClafferty said.
Such protections are currently extended under state law based on "race, creed, religion, color, sex, physical or mental disability, age, or national origin."
Similar proposals have come before the Legislature many times over the years, only to fail. It could even be harder to get the idea through the House this session, since Republicans control the chamber 68-32. The House committee is expected to vote on the two measures Monday.
Republican Rep. Kristin Hansen of Havre argued Missoula's ordinance creates a confusing situation since it is unique to just one city in the state. The ordinance protects residents from housing and employment discrimination based on "actual or perceived" sexual orientation and gender identity.
Hansen argued the state law establishing which groups should get such protections pre-empts the local law.
Missoula leaders objected to the proposal to repeal the ordinance, arguing the ordinance was thoroughly vetted in their community before it was adopted by the City Council. Advocates supported the ordinance as an important step forward — and one the state has no business undoing.
"Sadly, discrimination against members of our community is alive and well, which is precisely why I co-sponsored our ordinance," said Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier.
Harris Himes, a pastor and lobbyist with the conservative Montana Eagle Forum, said he believes discrimination against gay people by landlords and others should be allowed because homosexuality is an "abomination."
"Yes, they should be able to discriminate," Himes said. "They should be able to choose to whom they rent based on religious reasons. That goes to employment, that goes to Sunday school, that goes to all those issues."