The weekend of Feb. 11, a gay couple called police and said they'd been attacked outside a bar on Ryman Street by two strangers who shouted homophobic epithets. After putting out a request for tips from the public, the Missoula Police Department later cited Wade Turner, 37, and Steven Niebel, 33, with misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct. The citation simply notes that besides yelling slurs, the men struck the victims, "causing injury."
Turner and Niebel were never booked into jail, according to MPD Public Information Officer Travis Welsh. Both men entered not guilty pleas and are set to appear in Municipal Court in April. If they're convicted, they could face a $500 fine and up to six months in county jail.
By the police and victims' account, the Feb. 11 attack qualifies as a crime motivated by bias. But Turner and Niebel won't face enhanced penalties, as other bias-motivated crimes do, because Montana state law does not protect sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Missoula's nondiscrimination ordinance only protects people from prejudice in housing and employment.
City Attorney Jim Nugent says the police working the Feb. 11 assault case conferred with the Missoula County Attorney's Office to be sure that a misdemeanor was the appropriate citation for Turner and Niebel. Montana code defines hate crimes as offenses motivated by the victim's creed, religion, color, national origin or involvement in civil rights activities. Those offenses can earn an extra two to 10 years in prison time on top of existing assault penalties.
At the Montana Human Rights Network, Co-Director Rachel Carroll Rivas says the February incident serves as an important reminder of why civil rights groups have long pushed for an update to Montana's hate crime law. More than 30 states include sexual orientation in their hate crime statutes.
"Hate crime laws exist because those types of bias crimes perpetuate fear amongst that targeted group," Carroll Rivas says. "They're meant to not only target individuals, but instill fear in LGBT people for being out."
The Montana Legislature has repeatedly shot down attempts to change state hate crime laws, including a bill proposed by state Sen. Carol Juneau in 2007. Efforts to enact complementary non-discrimination laws have also failed. HB 417 died this year in the Montana House following a partisan vote with all but one Republican opposing.
Opponents to non-discrimination laws often cite religious freedom and the right to express disagreement with LGBT people's lifestyles. In 2007, a representative for Concerned Women for America testified against hate-crime legislation by saying, "We live in a world where even the Bible is being deemed hate literature."
In 2015, the state Board of Crime Control identified 14 bias-motivated crimes in the state including three targeting LGBT people. But Carroll Rivas isn't sure that state measures are telling the whole story. Last December, MHRN launched a new state hate incident reporting form online, where people are encouraged to report hate incidents of any kind. Carroll Rivas says eventually, they hope to gather enough information to take back to the legislature and continue to push for enhanced hate crime statutes. She'd like to see enhanced penalties include some kind of "restorative justice" requirement, rather than prison time, to offer homophobes the opportunity to be re-educated about how their actions affect others.
"While we may have victories in the courts in terms of rights to marry, we still have major gaps when it comes to hate crime legislation and statewide nondiscrimination policy," Carroll Rivas says. "In our state, we may be able to get married, but you can still get fired from your job, kicked out of your house and assaulted for being an LGBT person—without recourse."