In a quick aboutface, the Montana Senate dumped a proposal Thursday requiring people convicted of homosexual acts to register with police, and one of its supporters apologized.
The Republican majority, however, refused to consider a Democratic proposal to repeal the state law making homosexual acts a crime.
The vote was unanimous when the Senate bowed to overwhelming public criticism and deleted the reference to homosexuals from a bill requiring lifetime police registration of people convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses.
In a key vote earlier in the week, all 31 Republicans had voted to leave the provision in the bill and all but one of the 19 Democrats voted to take it out. That left a bill lumping anyone convicted of a homosexual act in with convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters.
Republican Sen. Al Bishop of Billings apologized Thursday for his comments in the earlier debate in which he said gay sex was worse than rape.
“We all know in the heat of debate that things are said without careful thought as to precise meaning or implication,” Bishop said. “I never intended nor meant to infer that consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex are in the same category as violent sexual acts. I regret that I made the statement.”
Senators who earlier supported registration for convicted homosexuals said Thursday they had misunderstood the provision.
“The discussion was unclear,” said Sen. Tom Keating, R-Billings. “When I’m not sure of something, my first instinct is to vote no.”
Sen. Ric Holden, R-Glendive, said he had misunderstood the gayregistration provision from the very beginning. He said he mistakenly believed that taking it out of the bill would actually repeal the sodomy law, a move he does not support.
But critics said it was the deluge of criticism from across the nation that changed votes Thursday.
“This is a case where they got more unfavorable publicity than they expected, and they’re caving,” said Democratic Sen. Terry Klampe of Florence.
Republican Gov. Marc Racicot’s office said it fielded about 100 phone calls before noon from people critical of the gay-registration section.
The state’s toll-free tourist information line also had many calls from “angry, outraged people threatening to boycott travel” to Montana, said Racicot’s press secretary, Rorie Hanrahan.
Early in the day Racicot refused to comment on the bill, saying he had not read it. By noon, he issued a statement promising to veto the bill if the provision was not removed.
The measure was in some ways symbolic - homosexual sex between consenting adults is a crime in Montana, but people on both sides of the issue said they knew of no one who has ever been prosecuted under the law.
Sen. Dorothy Eck, D-Bozeman, said the time was ripe to repeal the law that makes homosexuality a crime in Montana.
“Even those of you who have strong objections to homosexuality still could accept the fact that homosexuality should not be a felony,” Eck said.
Republicans said it was too late in a busy legislative session to take on such a delicate and high-profile subject and refused to suspend Senate rules to allow for late introduction of a bill.
Sandra Hale of the Montana gayrights group Pride said that was a “bogus” argument, because the Legislature often takes up complicated legislation late in the session.
“We are still felons under Montana law and we have no recourse,” said Linda Gryczan of Clancy, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Montana’s sodomy law. She said the case in District Court at Helena will go to trial in the fall.
Sen. Larry Baer, R-Bigfork, said he would support a bill in the next session to repeal the sodomy law.
xxxx IDAHO HEADLINE: Montana senate drops anti-gay proposal