So many people packed into a ground-floor hearing room in the state capitol Wednesday morning, the committee chairman had to warn of it becoming a fire hazard, as debate began on whether Montana should protect gender identity or expression and sexual orientation under the state’s civil rights laws.
"He looked me directly in the eye and said, 'I do not rent to your kind.'"
This is Kathleen O'Donnell.
In the summer of 2014, O'Donnell was looking to find a home for herself, and her wife, then fiancé, in Billings. She says there were no laws preventing a landlord from not renting to her because she was an out lesbian.
She says a man told her he would not rent to her because she was gay.
"My kind was a person who had a stable job and a good rental history in search of a home. My kind a person who had been actively involved in her community, my kind was someone who raised their right hand and served their country. But none of that seemed to matter to him."
During the hearing on House Bill 417, O’Donnell and other members of the LGBT community asked lawmakers to pass the bill, which would add their identity to a list of classes that can't be discriminated against in housing, employment, education, and other services.
Opponents pushed back with testimony about the proposal's infringement on religious freedom, the moral authority of God, and the consequences of men walking into women’s bathrooms.
Montana code currently says people have a right not to be discriminated against because of race, creed, religion, color, sex, disability, age or national origin.
"The list of groups already in the Montana human rights act is extensive. This would just be adding LGBT people to that already existing list."
This is S.K. Rossi with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana:
"It doesn't change protections, it doesn’t give LGBT people greater protections, it simply adds the LGBT people to the list of classes that is already protected. It doesn't change the process, it doesn’t change the expectations, it doesn’t change anything else. The religious organizations are still exempt, churches and religious schools are still exempt, non profit [organizations] associated with a religion are still exempt."
While some cities across the state have adopted non-discrimination ordinances with similar intent, efforts to include gay, lesbian and transgender people in statewide non-discrimination laws have failed in the past.
The sponsor of House Bill 417, Billings Democrat Kelly McCarthy, a relative of Kathleen O'Donnell, who was told she couldn’t rent a home because she was gay, pitched his legislation in the scope of economic development.
"If we would like some of theses business to expand into Montana and help diversify our economy and make sure we have good paying jobs here, let's not give them any reasons not to come here," McCarthy said.
Other supporters of the bill pointed to the controversy in North Carolina, last year, when PayPal decided against expanding its business into the state after North Carolina passed a law prohibiting legal protections for LGBT people.
Rick Vought, chairman of the Christian Education Association in Montana, although he said was speaking on no one's behalf but his own, testified against the bill, telling lawmakers it threatens his family's freedom:
"There is an agenda behind this type of legislation, in whatever form it takes, before whatever body it takes. And that is to create a vehicle to use the coercive power of government to target, attack and if possible destroy people who actually have a conscience, who still have character, and will not compromise for the sake of economic or political expediency."
Vought said the philosophy behind the legislation is the equivalent to shaking one’s fist at God.
"It repudiates the wisdom of our creator," he said.
Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation also objected the bill, saying it's trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist:
"The bill's premise is that people are targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and therefore are in need of special protection. Fortunately, that premise is false."
He also said the bill would have unintended consequences:
"Members, if you pass this women and girls across the state will no longer have the assurance that they can undress in a locker room, without the possibility of a man walking in on them. Is this what you intend to do? More importantly, is this what we want as a society," Laszloffy asked.
Other opponents to the bill said it would open the door for them to be vilified and persecuted for their morals and way of life, by suppressing the ability of some religious people to practice their beliefs.
The bill's sponsor, Representative Kelly McCarthy, responded in this way in his final statement:
"I don’t know that discrimination is a privilege worth defending"
The House Judiciary committee did not vote immediately on the bill.