The Billings City Council spent a little time Monday discussing the 2014-15 budget and a lot of time hearing from residents who still want to talk to them about the nondiscrimination ordinance.
Following a public hearing, the proposed budget will be part of a busy agenda for the June 9 meeting. So will a proposal, approved by the city council’s 6-5 vote in the early hours of May 27, to direct staff to stop working on the NDO. That vote will also follow a public hearing.
If the city council reverses itself and allows city staff to complete the work on the language of the proposed ordinance, the proposal should be ready June 12 or 13, City Administrator Tina Volek said, in time for the city council’s June 16 work session.
About 60 people attended Monday’s work session. A few NDO proponents wore orange T-shirts urging the city council to take up their cause.
People spoke on both sides of the issue, which has generated dozens of letters to the editor and perhaps even more letters written to the 11 city council members.
Alfred Poirier, pastor of the Rocky Mountain Community Church, called the NDO a sensitive issue that will result in polarization, misunderstanding, caricature and hate. “Don’t further that by enacting this proposed ordinance,” he said.
In response to a question from Council member Brent Cromley, Poirier said being gay can be the result of both nature and nurture. “Most people think of it as someone being born that way, but the science is highly inconclusive,” he said.
But Doug Johnson, a pastor and hospital chaplain, said that he discovered in himself at age 14 “that for reasons known only to God, I found that I was attracted to boys. I tried to pray it away and read it away in the Bible.”
He said patients in the psychiatric unit where he works tell him stories about pastors and other believers who “tell them they are going to hell because of this thing they did not choose. Talk like this doesn’t bring anybody to repentance — it simply drives people away from Christ.”
Janice Bradley said she lived the “lesbian lifestyle” for six years, “looking for someone to share my life with, but I never found happiness in that relationship. I have since come to know my creator.”
She likened “laws laid down about sexuality” with the law of gravity. Asked by Councilman Rich McFadden if the NDO will create more acceptance or more resentment, Bradley said that latter, “primarily among people of faith. I don’t think it will do one thing to alleviate the concerns that people are sharing right now.”
Martha Rhoades, a Billings psychiatrist, said that hundreds of studies have concluded that being gay is “hard-wired” in people and “not a lifestyle choice.” One example, she said: One study indicated that gay and straight people emit different body odor; gay people prefer the odor of fellow gay folks, she said.
Walt Donges, who chairs the Billings Human Relations Commission, said the commission used Billings’ Municipal Quality Index — a yardstick some businesses use when evaluating whether to move to or expand in a community — as a baseline. Billings received a score of 21; Missoula, which has an NDO in place, scored 100.
In a related development, Gov. Steve Bullock issued this statement Monday upon Bozeman’s passage of its nondiscrimination ordinance: “Discrimination is bad for the state’s economy and businesses, as well as contrary to the freedoms we expect as Montanans. I encourage other Montana communities to follow suit in the near future.”
Steve Hubley said the ordinance isn’t needed because “Billings is already a welcoming community. There is a need to remind us to guard our words.” He said it’s possible that the NDO, if and when it’s written, “will be fraught with the potential for unintended consequences.” He urged the city council to “weigh the evidence — or the lack thereof.”
Kirsten Pett, who attended Bible college as well as Montana State University Billings, said Monday’s was her first city council meeting. “I definitely think this is an ordinance you need to consider — to see the language and consider passing it and moving forward,” she said.
Tom Hall, senior interim minister at First Congregational United Church of Christ, urged the city council to have the same courage as first responders — “to do just the opposite of what is expected, to run toward danger.”
Tom Jones, who joked that “I don’t sing very well,” said he doesn’t understand “why we need an ordinance to suppress discrimination that hasn’t occurred. I hope that the council will elect to put it on a future ballot, to pull this divisive burden away from the council. If it passes, there will be no turning back.”
Charles Clark urged quicker action than that.
“When is the right time for the NDO to happen? Now is the time, not tomorrow or next week,” he said. “These aren’t special rights — they are the same equal rights. Why table something that hasn’t even been brought to the table yet?”