by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe (D-Great Falls)
Deliberations on the Senate floor last Monday began with a noble but doomed attempt by the inimitable Senator Christine Kaufmann to “blast” her bill, SB 179, out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote. SB 179 would prevent discrimination against Montanans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Several Montana communities have adopted non-discrimination ordinances (NDOs). Most have not. In any event, an issue that goes to the heart of our Constitution shouldn’t be relegated to an unpredictable, haphazard patchwork of equality from town to town. The State of Montana should proudly declare that we do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The hearing on SB 179, conducted on January 30, was predictably painful. The usual armchair lawyers and theologians shared their sophistry. There were those who worried they’d be forced to provide the services of their business to couples engaging in rituals to which they have a religious objection. And there was a lot of concern about restrooms. Perverts might fake they are transgender just to gain access to the ladies’ room to do God-knows-what. Then, too, what do I say to my child when we see this “other person” at the urinal?
But for me the painful part was hearing proponent after proponent telling the stories of their exclusion and their fear and pleading for a freedom the rest of us take for granted: the freedom to be candid about who we are and whom we love without risking our jobs or our homes. “It’s legal for me to be married in Montana,” one proponent said, “But if I put my wedding picture on my desk at work, I can be fired.”
When the hearing ended, the Committee killed the bill on a party-line vote. But Kaufmann, who has carried the banner of LGBT equality throughout her long legislative career, a career that ends this session, had one last hope: the blast motion.
The Senate gallery was filled last Monday with many of the same proponents whose pleas we had heard 18 days earlier. There they sat, their hearts on their sleeves, as Sen. Kaufmann rose to address the body. She was the essence of dignity, as usual. She offered to delete the language on public restrooms, if necessary, but urged the body to be on the right side of history on the civil rights issue of our time. Fiddle-dee-dee. Same parties. Same line. The blast fizzled.
As we turned to other bills, the galleries quietly emptied, like fog evaporating under a harsh sun.
The week closed with another non-discrimination request, SB 239. SB 239 would prohibit counties and municipalities from doing anything that would discriminate against a specific breed of dog. In the week preceding the debate, we had heard a lot from animal-lovers about the bad rap pit bulls get and how it’s really lousy owners, not lousy dogs, who are to blame for vicious dog attacks.
I have no opinion on the subject of pit bulls. Pretty much all breeds of dogs seem to like the taste of my flesh. But as Sen. Dick Barrett pointed out in the floor debate, the real issue isn’t whether pit bulls are by nature vicious. It isn’t even whether bans on particular breeds are workable. The problem with SB 239 is the breadth of its language. It doesn’t allow any ordinance, any resolution, or even any policy that singles out a particular breed of dog. County commissioners couldn’t even declare a Collie Appreciation Day on Lassie’s birthday. Arguably, Fort Benton would have to take down its statue of Shep – or at least show an appreciation of diversity by erecting statues of The Auditor and Seaman.
Sen. Barrett also pointed out how inconsistent the Senate is from one day to the next. The ink is hardly dry on the Senate’s passage of a bill authorizing county commissioners to ban bison from their counties. And now we’re telling them they can’t have a policy on bringing your break stick with your pit bull to the dog park?
It took us only slightly longer on Saturday to debate and kill the dog NDO than it did to accomplish the same result for the LGBT community. As we turned to other affairs, I looked up at the gallery that had teemed with hopeful hearts on Monday and breathed a sigh of relief that they weren’t here today.
Since Saturday’s floor session ended, I’ve been inundated with emails from dog-lovers urging me to change my vote on SB 239. “In America,” the most recent one said, “responsible dog owners should be allowed to love and care for whatever breed or mixed breed dog they choose.”
I haven’t received a single email from the hapless proponents of SB 179, though. Faceless and voiceless once again, they’re left to cower in the shadows of their communities till the arc of history finally touches justice. Grrrr.
Sen. Moe can be reached at email@example.com. If you email her, thank her for her good work. You can read more about her priorities and values on the Great Falls Tribune here.