06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Missoula City Council Passes Historic Civil Rights Law

The ordinance was controversial from the start. The city saw an unprecedented amount of opposition and support in response to this ground-breaking ordinance. Montana human rights groups scrambled to beat back last minute organized assaults on the effort by The group called out some resident's concerns about bathroom safety should the law pass.

Gay activists responded by massive educational and outreach efforts to educate and mobilize city and state residents in support of the measure. That this council passed this law in a notoriously conservative state is an achievement that signals a great social milestone in Montana.

Missoula's city council took up the issue to pass the first city-wide anti-discrimination protecting the city's LGBT citizens in Montana, a few Montana organizations worked tirelessly to get the law passed. The Montana Human Rights Network the ACLU, Forward Montana and Montana Equality Network sponsored the effort. The city council sat through seven grueling hours of citizen debate before passing the measure on a 10-2 vote. The measure protects city residents against employment and housing discrimination based on "actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression."

Leading up to the law's passage, the community held a rally to express support for the measure. Those opposing the law were greatly outnumbered. Missoula Mayor John Engen issued a proclamation declaring April 12, 2010 as Missoula Diversity Day. City council members Stacy Rye and Dave Strohmaier introduced the proposal. The ten members voting for the measure include Rye and Strohmaier, Pam Walzer, Roy Houseman, Bob Jaffe, Ed Childers, Marilyn Marler, Jason Wiener, Jon Wilkins, and Dick Haines. The two opposing it were Lyn Hellegaard and Renee Mitchell. The final vote drew a standing ovation from the exhausted but determined crowd of the law's proponents.

Montana Civil Rights Trampled by Legislature on Down

The state of Montana lost substantial equivalency certification by the federal government with respect to federal fair housing protections over a decade ago; civil rights in the state have backslid since. The issue of substantial equivalency affects other protected classes. This will not have bearing on the LGBT community in the state unless the federal Civil Rights Act is amended to provide for guarantees at the federal level, and/or the state follows through and amends its human rights law.

The local ordinance was necessary to cover the gaps, and lack of will to enforce civil rights at a state level. Missoula is an island for LGBT citizens in making an attempt to provide protections and break new civil rights ground in Montana. While state human rights workers will attempt to introduce similar ordinances in other cities across the state; an effort must take place at the state level.

The state legislature may have no choice but to beef up the state civil rights law--Title 49, the Montana Human Rights Act. There is a growing awareness that previously disengaged constituencies are recognizing the power of cross-issue organizing to ensure their voices are heard with respect to vital protections in the state law. There is a need to restore substantial equivalency certification by the state enforcement agency: the Montana Human Rights Commission. The rollback in state protections occurred in previous conservative legislatures and state administrations.

The current Governor, though popular in the state, has not made civil rights a higher priority; the status quo has remained. The issues of substantial equivalency protections to federal protected classes and the need for state protection of LGBT have now fused. Will public will follow suit to address these issues? I guess time will tell. Certainly efforts must continue at a state and federal level.

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