The Montana senate on Wednesday narrowly endorsed a bill to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians by including them in the state's human rights laws. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Ken Toole (D-Helena), passed a second reading on a 27-23 vote, with several lawmakers breaking party lines. A final vote was expected Thursday.
The bill would ban discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation when it comes to employment, public accommodations, housing, financial transactions, education, job referrals, licensing, training programs, government services, and funding and public contracts. Human rights laws already ban discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, creed, marital status, physical or mental disability, political ideas, and national origin.
Toole and other supporters acknowledged the bill won't stop all discrimination against gays and lesbians but said it would afford them the protection everyone deserves. "We are not condoning homosexual life for those of you who don't want to do that," said Sen. Brent Cromley (D-Billings). "We are recognizing that there are homosexuals out there and they should not be discriminated against."
Sen. Dan McGee (R-Laurel) said extending human rights protection based on sexual orientation would extend those rights beyond gays and lesbians to include people who engage in such practices as pedophilia and bestiality. He also called the term sexual orientation too broad and said the bill could conflict with current law. "I believe this whole issue is about behavior, even if someone wants to argue that a person is inclined to be that way," McGee said. "Well, that gives them no right to act that way."
The bill was brought to the senate floor for debate after being resurrected from the senate judiciary committee, where lawmakers rejected it on a 6-6 vote. This is the sixth session out of the past seven in which lawmakers have considered adding sexual orientation to human rights laws. Sen. Joe Balyeat (R-Bozeman) argued against the measure for economic reasons, saying it would only subject businesses and state agencies to additional mandates and result in more discrimination lawsuits. "Sexual orientation is not outwardly tangible like race or practice of religion," he said. "In fact, it can change over time."
Sen. Jesse Laslovich (D-Anaconda) disagreed with arguments calling sexual orientation a choice and urged lawmakers to think about equal rights in approving the bill. His uncle, who was gay, died of AIDS in the 1970s before Laslovich was born. "I don't think it's a decision.... He didn't choose to be a homosexual," Laslovich said. (AP)