Dec 4, 2012 12:00 AM by Marnee Banks (marnee@kxlh.com)

Non-discrimination ordinance clears hurdle in Helena

The Helena City Commission has approved first passage of an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.

Before the meeting began on Monday night, members of the public showed their support for the non-discrimination ordinance by waving signs that said "Dignity for All" and "Hate is not a Helena value" outside the city county building.

Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network says it's time for the City of Helena to step up.

"Montana is one of a few states right now that have no statewide protection for LGBT people: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender," Greer says. "We can be denied employment or housing simply for who we are or who we love."

Inside opponents sat wearing stickers that read "Special Rights are not Equal Rights," waiting for their chance to testify.

Jerry Hamlin is a local business and land owner who helped organize those who oppose the ordinance.

"I'm concerned about what effect this new ordinance will have on my business practices and my landlord relationship with my tenants," Hamlin said in an interview.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit discrimination in accommodation, housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Commissioners unanimously passed the ordinance but not before disagreeing on the amendments.

Commissioner Dick Thweat proposed an amendment which passed, adding the language: "In any place of public accommodation where users ordinarily appear in the nude, users may be required to use the facility designated for their anatomical sex, regardless of their gender identity."

Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath opposed the amendment saying it is a violation of privacy and she isn't sure how it will be enforced.

"Is the 16-year old at Capital City Health Club supposed to be asking people to pull down their pants?" Haque-Hausrath asked Thweat.

Roberta Zenker lead the testimony for the supporters of the ordinance. She testified that she is not only a civil rights attorney but she is also a transgender who works, goes to church, and pay taxes in Helena.

"The fact is that I am pretty modest and my experience with trans people is that they are pretty modest too. The only reason they use the bathroom or the locker room is to relieve themselves or change their clothes," Zenker says. "If they are there for some prurient interest, then that's a different issue. And in fact is already protected by law."

Opponents believe under this ordinance businesses will not be able to tell a man they can't enter the women's bathroom or locker room, and without that authority they are concerned about sexual assault occurring.

They flew in attorney Joe La Rue from the Alliance Defending Freedom Fund of Phoenix, Arizona, to make their case.

"The problem won't be with the transgendered community. They aren't going to hurt anybody. The problem is this gives voyeurs and men who are interested in little girls safe passageway into your bathrooms," La Rue testified.

However, supporters say this ordinance is needed to protect LGBT individuals.

Michael Conner, 25, testified that years ago he was the victim of a violent hate crime while attending high school in Helena.

"I am well now, but I am neither safer or more secure here in my hometown than I was 10 years ago," Conner said. "As an adult, if my job or my housing were stripped from me due to bias against my sexual orientation I wouldn't have the security that comes with being the child of a mother who takes care of your basic needs."

Others, including Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church Pastor BG Stumberg, are concerned about how this impacts their religious freedoms.

"This ordinance would be diametrically opposed to what the word of God says about sexual identity and sexual behavior," Stumberg testified.

The Commissioners scheduled the final public hearing and vote on the ordinance for December 17th.

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