Montana's lieutenant governor offered support Friday for a bill specifying that gays, women, and people with disabilities are covered under the state law against hate crimes.
Opponents called House Bill 240 divisive and discriminatory, saying it would wrongly award special protection to certain people. Existing laws, they said, are sufficient to protect all Montanans. "The only way to make this bill fair and right is to take out all the classifications and apply it to everyone," said Dallas Erickson, head of the Stevensville-based group Montana Citizens for Decency Through Law.
Those favoring the bill said it is needed to protect targeted segments of Montana's population. "People do not choose to be physically or mentally impaired, they do not choose their gender, and they do not choose their sexual orientation," Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger told the house judiciary committee. "We are what we are as God created us, and we are all entitled to protection." The committee took no action on the bill Friday.
The measure would extend protection from hate crimes to people targeted because of their gender, disability, and sexual orientation. The law already makes it a crime to intimidate or harass someone based on race, religion, color, creed, or national origin. This is the seventh consecutive legislative session that such a bill has been proposed. In 2003, Democrats failed in trying to rescue the measure from the house judiciary committee, which deadlocked 9-9 over whether to recommend it for passage.
Sen. Ken Toole, a Helena Democrat, is proposing similar legislation to add sexual orientation as a protected characteristic under the Montana Human Rights Act as well as under the state's malicious intent law.