HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - Montana's governor on Thursday signed into law a bill that formally decriminalizes homosexual sex, a move gay rights activists in the state called a watershed moment in their battle for equality.
The measure removed from the books a law classifying gay sex as a felony. It was struck down by the Montana Supreme Court 16 years ago and no longer enforced.
"I am not going to speak too long," Democratic Governor Steve Bullock told the crowd packed into the expansive rotunda of the state capitol for a signing ceremony. "Because frankly, the longer I talk, the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on our books."
Lobbyist Linda Gryczan, who filed the original lawsuit which led to the state Supreme Court nullifying the ban in 1997, said having it formally removed from the books meant more now.
"Because (that) would have followed the normal course of what you'd expect, unconstitutional law, you take it off the books ... it makes sense," she said. "Unfortunately, to a lot of people, prejudice got in the way and we had to fight that prejudice."
Previous attempts in the legislature to remove the law failed. This time, it passed the state Senate by a vote of 38-11 and the House, 64-35.
Representative Jerry Bennett was one of the 35 Republicans who opposed the bill, saying he did so on religious grounds.
"God says we're to love one another ... but I still have to remain true to my beliefs in God and what he asks of us, and so balancing that is a very difficult thing at times," Bennett said.
Republican state Representative Duane Ankney, who has a gay daughter, said the law was an affront.
"To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle really upsets me," Ankney said.
Montana Human Rights Network Organizer Jamee Greer says the bill's passage is "the first explicit victory for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community through the (Montana) legislature in history."
But Greer says it's just one step toward full equality in the state.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Stacey Joyce