HELENA — The Montana Senate voted Wednesday to remove an obsolete state law that criminalized gay sex — a sea change moment for Senate Republicans who bucked their party's platform on the issue.
The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997, and Senate Bill 276 carried by Sen. Tom Facey would remove it from state code. The Missoula Democrat said the measure would provide equal protection under the law for all Montanans.
The Senate endorsed the bill 41-9 with 19 of 28 Senate Republicans supporting the measure. It has one more usually procedural vote before it goes to the House.
Republican backing for the measure goes against years of support for outlawing homosexual acts, which became part of the official party platform after the 1997 Supreme Court decision.
A noticeable shift in public opinion over sexual issues in the years since then, and the GOP's support for individual freedoms, led some Republicans to throw their weight behind the often Democrat-backed issue.
Former Republican Sen. John Brueggeman had called for removing the outdated law and for the GOP to strike it from its platform not long before resigning his seat last year.
Supporters said the bill was about putting the law in line with the court ruling and that it respects the different life choices of some Montanans.
Democratic Sen. Christine Kaufmann of Helena spoke passionately in support of the measure, referencing her life with a female partner. Kaufmann said the words unjustly made homosexuals serious criminals.
"For 30 years the words in this code have aligned me with people who molest animals," Kaufmann said. "You have many gay and lesbian members of your community who live under these words every day."
Nine Republicans voted against the bill. One, Sen. Rowlie Hutton of Havre, said he respected Facey's persistence in moving the bill forward but he has personal issues with the measure.
Gay rights advocates chalked the vote up as an important victory.
"We are thrilled to see the Montana Senate finally (vote to) remove unconstitutional language that is both hurtful and demeaning to gay and lesbian Montanans from the law books," Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network said in a statement.
Other gay-rights issues have faced a difficult road through the GOP dominated Legislature.
A bill to add statewide protections for sexual orientation and gender identity has failed to move out of committee in the House. The House has also passed a proposal aimed at overturning Missoula's local ordinance banning discrimination of residents based on sexual orientation.
Gay rights supporters argue protection is needed for people of different sexual orientations because they face discrimination and unfair treatment. Opponents say protecting certain groups more than others can discriminate against everyone else.