Montana’s House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill that would overrule a Missoula city ordinance prohibiting employment and housing discrimination
Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinReligion_Thumb.jpgMontana’s House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill that would overrule a Missoula city ordinance prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender. The bill would prohibit any locality from protecting any group from discrimination not already protected under Montana law.
Missoula’s government operates under a charter, essentially a municipal constitution. Last year, Missoula amended its charter to include the ordinance because state law addresses only discrimination based on “sex, marital status, race, creed, religion, age, familial status, physical or mental disability, color, or national origin.” Missoula added to that “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.” A similar statute is also on the books in Bozeman.
The new bill, HB 516, has now been approved by the House and was sent over to the Senate immediately thereafter. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kris Hansen (R-Havre), has claimed that the inconsistency between the city ordinances and state discrimination regulations could be problematic if a city business or individual found in violation by Missoula or Bozeman were to take the case to the state level in appellate court.
And yet instances abound of less controversial issues addressed in Missoula’s city charter that have no equivalent in Montana State Code and would presumably face the same problems in a state appeals court. To provide one very mundane example, Missoula residents are prohibited from putting up barbed wire fences on their property except under certain conditions; there is no such prohibition in the Montana Code, and yet no one on the state level has objected to this regulation or any of the dozens of other Missoula-specific regulations on the books.
Now that the bill has made it through the House, it stands a very good chance of getting through the state Senate, in which Republicans outnumber Democrats 28 to 22. If that happens, all eyes will be on Montana’s Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer has been somewhat quiet on gay rights in the past, preferring to defer to the will of the people in interviews, although he did call opponents to gay marriage “homophobic” in a 2009 interview. It seems Schweitzer’s decision to pass or veto the bill will come down to whether he wants to alienate conservative voters by going to bat for gay rights when he could just as easily skirt around the issue by way of a veto in order to prevent a later mess in state courts.
Montana is not alone among states where Republican legislators are working to push against such anti-discrimination laws. In Tennessee, a bill explicitly nullifying any local anti-discrimination charters and limiting discrimination laws to “race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin” failed in committee earlier this month. State Representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin) introduced the bill in response to a recent Nashville Metro Development and Housing Agency decision to expand anti-discrimination statutes to include gender and sexuality-based discrimination.
In Kansas, a bill currently in the House Judiciary Committee is meant to achieve the same goal using far less transparent language. HB 2260 (PDF) is framed as a religious freedom bill, but buried within is language that would give employers and landlords carte blanche to discriminate against anyone, as long as they do so for religious reasons.
The bill first limits its definition of the term “compelling government interest,” saying that it “shall not include prohibition of a practice or policy of discrimination against individuals in employment relations, in access to free and public accommodations or in housing” unless it’s of a type already prohibited by Kansas law, which does not address gender identification or sexuality. The bill later goes on to say that no government decision can “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it’s of compelling government interest.
Lost yet? Opponents of the bill say that’s the point — to slip gender and sexuality-based discrimination into the protection of the law by using language so confusing that no one would notice. In plain language, the bill says that discriminating against LGBT employees and tenants is an act of religious freedom protected under the law.
All three bills have something in common beyond the discrimination they seek to protect. They all have ties to Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based evangelical Christian organization that advocates prayer in schools and is outspokenly opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. In an interview with the Billings Gazette, Rep. Hansen, the sponsor of the Montana bill, said that the Montana Family Foundation brought an already-drafted version of the bill to her so that she could introduce it to the Montana House. As it proclaims on its website, the Montana Family Foundation is affiliated with Focus on the Family.
Meanwhile, Citizen Link issued a press release about Rep. Casada’s Tennessee bill nearly a month before he introduced it to the House. Citizen Link is a subsidiary of Focus on the Family and publishes the latter organization’s in-house magazine, Citizen.
And in Kansas, one of the principal advocates of the House’s convoluted discrimination bill has been the Alliance Defense Fund. The Alliance Defense Fund was co-founded by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Focus on the Family was also responsible for a series of Colorado ads in 2008 which claimed that an anti-discrimination bill then being debated would allow sexual predators to cross-dress and enter restrooms meant for the opposite sex in order to sexually assault children. The bill became law despite the ad campaign.
Focus on the Family underwent an IRS investigation between 2005 and 2007, during which it was investigated for inappropriately endorsing and funding campaigns for public office. The organization stood to lose its non-profit status as a result of the investigation, though it was eventually cleared of the charges.
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