HELENA - The Boy Scouts were out in full force - and full uniform - at a legislative committee hearing Wednesday speaking in opposition to a bill to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Senate Bill 199, by Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, seeks to include sexual orientation as a protected group under the Montana Human Rights Act. Discrimination based on race, creed, religion, color, gender, physical or mental disability, age or national origin is already illegal under state law.
"This bill is not about sex,” Toole said. "It's about fair treatment.”
SB199 has already passed the Senate and was heard in front of the House Judiciary Committee. After the hearing, a motion to table SB199 failed, 8-10, but the committee must still take a final vote on the bill.
The Boy Scouts opposed SB199 not because it deals with sexual orientation, but because of an issue of access, said Montana Boy Scout Executive Gordon Rubard.
A section of SB199 states public facilities may not be used for discriminatory practices.
Rubard is concerned SB199 will no longer allow Boy Scouts access to state or city parks - areas where most troops carry out community service projects - because of the group's national policy against homosexuals.
"This bill limits rights in an effort to extend rights,” Rubard said.
Jerry Keck, administrator of the state Employment Relations Division, said he did not interpret the bill to keep the Boy Scouts from accessing state and public land as long as they did not use the area for discriminatory purposes.
Keck went on to say the Boy Scouts would in fact be exempt from all provisions of the bill because they are a private organization.
Rubard said he was not convinced or reassured by Keck's opinion.
The bill exempts all religious, charitable, fraternal and private organizations, according to Karl Olson, executive director of PRIDE, a gay-rights group. Nearly every organization opposing the bill is also exempt from its authority, he said.
"Exemptions were almost entirely what opponents misconstrued,” he said.
One opponent, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, told lawmakers American Indians don't believe people are born homosexual. It is not natural, said Titus Upham. American Indians who are homosexual "live outside the inner circle,” he said.
Indians too have been discriminated against, Upham said. However, it has not been over something they could control, he said. Therefore, homosexuals bring discrimination upon themselves by choosing to be gay or lesbian, and most Indians resent that, he said.
"Our position is being prostituted for their gain,” Upham said.
However, Janet Zimmerman of Pony, said Montana communities need Toole's bill.
"This bill is about hate,” she said. "I live in a community where homophobia is so rampant. None of us are truly free if one of is not free.”