HELENA — The House blocked an attempt Tuesday to blast a stalled bill out of committee so representatives could debate whether to repeal the state law declaring gay sex to be illegal.
The leading backer of the bill said the Montana Supreme Court, in a unanimous 1997 decision, struck down the law banning gay sex as unconstitutional, but it remains on the state law books.
A leading opponent said the court didn't strike down the law as unconstitutional.
The motion by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, to blast Senate Bill 276 out of the House Judiciary Committee, received 51 votes in the 100-member House but failed to secure the 60 votes needed. The vote was 51-47.
The Senate passed SB276, by Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, 35-14, but the House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill.
Before the court ruling in 1997, gays and lesbians in Montana risked being charged with felonies and if convicted, they could have faced a maximum penalty of a 10-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine, said Sands, a lesbian.
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"It's been almost 15 years since the Supreme Court ruling," Sands said. "It's about time we removed that language from the books. Let's bring it to the floor and debate it and take action on it."
Sands the bill is more than just repealing an out-of-date law.
"It's about the value we all place on the constitutional right to privacy and the right of members of the gay and lesbian community of Montana to not be criminals under the law," she said.
Judiciary Chairman Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, who is an attorney, said the Supreme Court didn't find the law unconstitutional.
Its ruling held that same-sex adults, in private, not-for-commercial purposes, are protected by the right to privacy, Peterson said. The court didn't say the law was unconstitutional, he said.
"It should not be repealed because of situations it might apply in," he said.
Sands drew support from Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, who said the issue is not about gay marriage or religion.
"This is about freedom, privacy, respect, personal responsibility," Gibson said.
He added, "Do you want the government in your bedroom? I don't. I'm sure everybody in the House knows someone in their family, a friend or a person that is homosexual. Do you love them? Do you respect them? I do."
However, Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway, argued against Sands' motion, citing Scripture, natural law and "eternal law."
"I would say that the protections provided in the privacy clause of the Montana Constitution, which are extensive and which we've been over numerous times in the House Judiciary Committee, the protections are sufficient," he said.
In her closing, Sands said she knows that many representatives consider homosexuality to be a sin, which is their right. But she said the court has ruled the law unconstitutional and so the language should be removed from Montana law.
The Missoula lawmaker followed up on Gibson's statements.
"You know, we are members of your family and your community," Sands said. "We sit next to you in your pew at church and in some cases we're your pastor, whether you know it or not. We care for your parents in nursing homes. We're your nieces and nephews.
"We fill the potholes on your streets, and we even serve beside you as members of the House and the Senate. These days we serve beside you in the House and the Senate as out members of the lesbian and gay community, partly because we were not under the threat of this law."