Helena second Montana city to pass nondiscrimination ordinance

visitors pack into Helena's City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

visitors pack into Helena’s City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

Helena city commissioners have passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in the Capitol City.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination toward transgender individuals.

The measure extends to housing, employment, as well as use of public accommodations.

Helena stands as the second Montana city to pass a non-discrimination ordinance after Missoula. The process has taken about a year, and it’s been a contentious one.

“This is a very closely divided issue in this community,” said Helena City Commissioner Dan Ellison.

Supporters and opponents quickly filled the commission chambers, then packed into two overflow rooms showing audio and video of the meeting.

Each side was given a full hour for public comment.

“So I’m speaking up, for myself and on behalf of all those not in attendance for fear of repurcussions,” said Amy Ophus, a lesbian living in East Helena. She had been too afraid to speak during previous meetings, because she had seen her landlord among the opponents of the ordinance.

“He’s still here opposing the ordinance,” she said, but felt it was too important to sit silent this time.

“No one who lives, works or shops here should be afraid to hold hands with their loved ones in a public place,” Ophus said.

The ordinance reads existing state and federal laws do not clearly address all discriminatory acts reported by Helena’s diverse residents.

LGBT supporters of the ordinance told stories of a wide variety of verbal and physical abuse.

“I’ve been jeered at, I’ve been called names, I’ve been sworn at,” said transgender woman Roberta Zenker. “I’ve been told I’m an abomination and I should be put to death.”

Those speaking against the ordinance say it’s impossible to legislate kindness. Sometimes people are just going to be cruel to each other.

B.G. Stumberg approached the podium.

“I wasn’t really sure that I was going to speak this evening but I was prompted by one of my tenants, Amy Ophus,” he said. He says he is truly sorry for the supporters who have been discriminated against, but he’s been discriminated against too.

“on numerous occasions because I’m a fundamental Evangelical Baptist and people don’t often appreciate my stand on things.”

He says he’s known his tenant Amy Ophus was a lesbian for years and has never treated her with anything but respect.

“I treated her as a child of god, a person with dignity,” he said.

The majority of opponents spoke of their respect for the LGBT community. But some say the ordinance threatens traditional family and religious values. Others worry about costs to taxpayers from lawsuits prompted by the ordinance. The issue raised most often was a rather specific one—a worry about transgender people using public restrooms and locker rooms. Helena Resident Sharon Turner says she’s afraid for the community’s children, but not from the gay and lesbian population.

“The concern that I have is that this ordinance will allow for those with malicious intent to enter women only portions of facilities under the guise of being transgender,” Turner said.

Commissioners affirmed an amendment inserted into the statute from an earlier meeting. The amendment does make it legal for a business with a locker room or changing room to require a transgender person use the restroom of their original, anatomical, sex.

Many supporters of the overall ordinance were outraged. The Montana Human Rights Network is calling it a harmful and offensive amendment. The only commissioner to vote against the locker room amendment was Katherine Haque-Hausrath. Commisioner Haque-Hausrath originally brought forward the nondiscrimination ordinance for consideration.

The full ordinance passed unanimously.

Applause could be heard from one side of the issue, yet some on both sides were shaking their heads.

Commissioner Haque-Hausrath said it was a bittersweet victory because of the locker room amendment she opposed.

“But I think it’s important to focus on what we are accomplishing with this,” She said with tears in her eyes. “Being LGBT is part of being human, it is something that is immutable, something that cannot change….We hear your concerns but we just believe there is discrimination and unfair treatment that’s worth addressing in the city of Helena.”

Most churches and religious organizations are exempt from the Nondiscrimination ordinance. The city say it will become effective next month.

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