Lawmakers in Helena on Friday heard a bill that would ban discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

House Bill 465, sponsored by Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, would amend the Montana Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against the LGBTQ community in employment, housing and being served by businesses. The Montana Human Rights Act currently bans discrimination against a person because of his or her race, sex, religion and age.

Bozeman, Butte, Billings, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish have enacted citywide ordinances that ban discrimination against the LGBTQ community, but Abbott said that’s made protections confusing.

“We have this patch work that I think we could clear up with a statewide law,” Abbott said.

Abbott said she knows people who struggle to find or maintain housing or work because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. She said employment and housing should be based on whether people are able to pay for the service, not on their characteristics.

Supporters of the bill included people from the LGBTQ community, clergy members and human rights’ advocates. They argued that the bill would extend an umbrella of protections already enjoyed by a portion of Montanans, and could attract businesses to the state.

Ken Fichtler, with the governor’s office of economic development, said the state is missing out on companies and hundreds of well-paying jobs because Montana does not have protections for LGBTQ people. When it comes to social issues, Fichtler said, Montana is not in this century.

“It’s time to stop noisy, but ultimately small, fringe groups to dictate the path forward on social issues for Montana. We should be welcoming everyone,” he said.

Jeff Krauss, Bozeman city commissioner, also backed the bill.

In 2014, Krauss was Bozeman’s mayor when the city passed a non-discrimination ordinance and extended protections to the LGBTQ community. However, he said, people who live in Bozeman and travel outside of the city for work don’t enjoy the same provisions they do while inside city limits.

“I don’t think city ordinances are enough,” Krauss said. “This body must take action.”

People who opposed the bill included the Montana Family Foundation and people who argued the bill would discriminate against their religious views. They argued the bill would make it so that members of the LGBTQ community would be considered a special class and given special protections.

Anita Milanovich, lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation, argued it violates freedom of religion and puts Montanans’ privacy at risk. She said the bill would also harm the state’s economy by penalizing businesses that refuse to serve people in the LGBTQ community.

Milanovich said none of the five cities in the state that have enacted a non-discrimination ordinance have received a complaint or an alleged violation of the law.

“The city councils in those cities solved a nonexistent problem,” she said.

Donna Elford argued the legislation would create a protective class. Elford said straight and gay people should have the same rights, but she doesn’t think it’s right to create a different class.

“I don’t think someone’s sexual orientation should give you special rights. I just don’t,” Elford said.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2630. Follow him on Twitter @TGIFreddy.

Reporter

Freddy Monares covers politics and county government for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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