By Matt Leach -
HELENA, Mont. -- Two controversial civil rights bills are pitting gay rights activists against conservative groups in Helena. Neither side can agree on who should be covered under the state's Human Rights Act.
House Bills 514 and 516 could bring big changes to antidiscrimination cases in Missoula or across the state.Ten months ago the Missoula City Council extended antidiscrimination protection to include gender identity and sexual orientation.Of the two bills introduced Friday, House Bill 514 would extend Missoula's law statewide. The other, HB 516, would prohibit cities from drawing up such bills unless the legislature did so first.Although Friday's debate didn't last as long as the record-setting hearing in Missoula last spring, it was just as fierce.HB 516 was supposed to be a bill to stop municipalities from making up their own civil rights laws."I believe that the Montana Human Rights Act pre-empts the city of Missoula from doing this," says bill sponsor Rep. Kristin Hansen (R-Havre).Debate quickly turned into battle over gay rights."There are those of us who would not wish to rent to gay and lesbian people, and for religious reasons," says Pastor Harris Himes, from Hamilton.Conservative religious groups turned out en masse to support the bill that would repeal Missoula's antidiscrimination ordinance."I know people in Ravalli County and Missoula County that won't take their children into businesses in Missoula right now because they do not know if they are going to be confronted in the restroom with a different gender," says Stevensville resident Dallas Erickson.On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Edie McClafferty (D-Butte) came up with a counter-argument, HB 514. The bill would take Missoula's antidiscrimination ordianance statewide, extending protection based on gender identity or sexual orientation throughout Montana.Several people in the audience stood up in support of McClafferty's bill, including one transgender lawyer who admits it can be hard to prove when someone is being discriminated against."I can't give you that direct proof. It is kind of like other United States Supreme Court justices have said, I know it when I see it," says the lawyer.Another member of the LGBT community stood up to support HB 514 from personal experience of discrimination."There was a point in time in my life, if I had been physically assaulted or fired because of my transgender status I wouldn't report it because it would require me to reveal my trans status and it would ultimately hurt my chances of getting another job," said the man.Battle lines were drawn, with no compromise offered from either side. NBC Montana will be following the status of these bills and keep you updated as developments occur.