Montana’s Possible Rollback of Local LGBT Protections Reflects National Trend

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 23, 2011

Missoula, Montana, is a university town with spectacular mountain views and a live-and-let-live attitude that found expression last year in a city ordinance banning discrimination against GLBTs in housing and employment.

But in Helena, the state capitol, the right of cities like Missoula to protect minorities is under challenge: Republican state lawmakers are mulling a law that would take away the power of cities to decide such matters for themselves.

The measure was introduced by Republican State Rep. Kris Hansen, reported Helena news channel KXLH on Feb. 22.

State Rep. Michael Morre offered a concise rationale for the measure. "You introduce things in one city, you can do things differently in another city, you can things in another town differently from that. If that is what you want, if you want to go down the road that can ultimately lead to one place then sure lets not pass this ordinance," said Morre. "But we need, this is what we do in here, we try to put things into the context of the whole."

A similar sentiment in Colorado two decades ago led to Amendment 2, the notorious anti-gay constitutional amendment that voters ratified in response to municipalities instituting protections for GLBT residents. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the amendment in 1996. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals twice reaffirmed a virtually identical amendment adopted by the city of Cincinnati and applied to the city's charter in 1993. Cincinnati residents themselves struck the amendment to the city charter in 2004.

Montana's House Judiciary Committee indicated support for the state law barring city protections for GLBTs on Feb. 21, reported on Feb. 22. The same panel opposed a proposal to include GLBTs in existing anti-discrimination laws that apply to race and religion.

The article reported that Democratic members of the State House objected, partially on the grounds that Republican State Representatives were applying a double standard, demanding state's rights and less interference from the federal government, but proving unwilling to allow municipalities to determine their own policies with regard to gays.

Lawmakers in several states have targeted GLBTs and their families for an array of anti-gay measures. Marriage equality in New Hampshire is currently under legislative assault, despite polls that show an overwhelming majority of New Hampshire residents believe that marriage equality should be left in place--and state lawmakers should focus on more practical and urgent issues, such as the state's economy.

Republican State Sen. Raymond White told his colleagues, "It's imperative that government only promote the best, most ideal household arrangements," reported the Boston Globe on Feb. 18.

There is no similar push in New Hampshire to ban heterosexual divorce.

Lawmakers in the Iowa House of Representatives are currently pursuing a constitutional amendment that would rescind existing marriage rights for gay and lesbian families. Moreover, the amendment that House Republicans wish to put before voters would deny same-sex families any other form of legal recognition as well, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Indiana state lawmakers have proposed a similarly severe anti-gay constitutional amendment. Republican State Rep. Eric Turner, the measure's sponsor, pointed to the 30 states that have put the issue to a vote. In all cases, the measures passes--though in Arizona, voters rejected the first attempt out of fear that heterosexual couples living together outside of marriage would be affected. Only when the Arizona measure was re-cast so that it specifically impacted only the rights of gays and lesbians did voters there approve it.

Co-sponsor Rep. Wes Culver, also a Republican, told the press that the measure was meant to give the people a voice in considering whether gay and lesbian families should share in marriage parity. Culver added that the measure would provide legal discrimination against gays and lesbians by religious groups in terms of employment and services. Religiously run adoption agencies, for instance, could not be compelled to place needy children in same-sex households under the provisions of the measure.

"I don't see it as taking away rights from somebody," Culver told the press. "I see it as working to protect the rights of those that believe in this institution."

Point--and Counter-Point

But other states have either recently enacted pro-gay measures, or are debating doing so. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act on Jan. 31. The measure seeks to strike a balance between the rights of GLBT families and the fears of religious groups that say full legal and civil equality for gays would automatically erode the rights of religious Americans who oppose gay equality out of the tenets of their faiths.

After a civil unions bill was vetoed last year in Hawaii, state lawmakers tried once again to extend legal recognition and protections to same-sex families in that state. Newly elected Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the resulting civil unions bill into law last week.

The new governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, started out his tenure with an exhortation to bring marriage parity to the state. Lawmakers were listening: two days after Chafee's inaugural address, on Jan. 7, lawmakers said that they would re-introduce legislation to extend marriage parity to Rhode Island's same-sex families. State Sen. Rhoda Perry told the Associated Press that she had seven cosponsors for a bill already secured. In the House, State Rep. Art Handy had 27 cosponsors ready to go. "I think the fact that we have a governor that's enthusiastic about the legislation makes a huge difference," Handy told the media.

Marriage equality bills are not new to Rhode Island's lawmakers. The state's House had seen such bills introduced each year for a decade and a half, starting in 1997, but the legislation had never been put to a vote. The AP article noted that the chances for any such bill are markedly better now that former Gov. Don Carcieri, a marriage equality foe, is no longer in office and openly gay state lawmaker Gordon Fox is now speaker of the state's House. The AP noted that Fox is a cosponsor of family parity legislation that was introduced in 2010 but failed to gain traction.

Another newly elected governor, New York's Andrew Cuomo, has also called for marriage parity in his state. The New York Senate was forced to address the issue by former Gov. David Paterson, only to vote down a measure that had been approved multiple times by the State Assembly. Among those who killed the bill were state senators who had previously expressed support, but who jumped ship when the time came. The New York state legislature has only grown more Republican since that time, and observers do not hold out hope that marriage equality is a realistic goal in New York at this time.

The chances are better in Maryland, where State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller announced on Feb. 22 that his chamber would commence deliberations on a family parity bill the following day. Miller speculated that a vote could follow as early as next week, the Associated Press reported on Feb. 22. Observers are optimistic: A senate committee approved the measure last week, and reports indicate that the bill has just enough support to pass the full senate.

And in West Virginia, a gay former coal miner who has become a central figure in the fight for laws to protect gays in the workplace has been cited by both Democratic gubernatorial contenders in their support for GLBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.