Nearly 250 people rallied in downtown Billings on Monday evening to show their support for continuing efforts to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, which the Billings City Council defeated on Aug. 13.
Called Billings Is Ready, the hourlong rally was held in front of First United Congregational Church, 310 N. 27th, and drew hundreds of people, many sporting the bright orange Billings NDO shirts they wore during the discussions in the weeks leading up to the council’s decision.
“There has been a lot of hurt and anger over the council’s decision, and we wanted to provide a place where people can come together and talk about it and move forward,” said Liz Welch, one of the event’s organizers and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
The NDO would have amended city code to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, and sparked heated debate among supporters and opponents.
The city council narrowly struck down the ordinance on a 6-5 vote, with Mayor Tom Hanel saying “I do not think Billings is ready at this time” for the NDO before casting the deciding vote against.
Monday’s rally drew business owners, religious leaders, citizens, other supporters and a U.S. Senate candidate to support renewed efforts for a Billings NDO.
“There’s not a single person on this planet who deserves to be discriminated against when they go to find a job or a place to live,” Amanda Curtis, the Democratic state senator from Butte who was tapped over the weekend as the party’s U.S. Senate candidate, told the crowd.
Addressing the ralliers, Jamey Eisenbarth said that, as a local business owner, he was inspired to get involved and publicly support the movement after the council’s vote because he doesn’t believe businesses should turn any customers away.
“I kept my mouth shut too much,” he said. “I want you guys to know that as a business owner, we do not discriminate against anybody.”
Eisenbarth and his fiance own Hardin Chevrolet, AutoWest of Billings and the Yellowstone Fitness center.
Most of Monday’s speakers urged people to continue to support and fight for a Billings NDO, even in the wake of its initial defeat. The Rev. Rob Kirby, campus minister at Montana State University Billings, said that it’s an issue that affects the entire community.
“We’re not done simply because a vote went the wrong way,” he said. “Now that we’ve found a voice, now is not the time to lose it.”
During the discussions leading up to the council’s decision, which sometimes featured meetings filled with hours of public comment that lasted late into the night, Marty Elizabeth Ortiz testified in support of the NDO several times.
On Monday, she said that as a transgender woman the decision disappointed her, and she urged everyone to attend future council meetings.
“I asked them to protect me,” she said. “And what did I get? I got a no.”
Before, during and after the rally, supporters held up signs, gathered signatures of support that they plan to submit to the city council, and encouraged passers-by to honk and wave.
Council members who voted against the NDO were Shaun Brown, Rich McFadden, Mike Yakawich, Angela Cimmino, Denis Pitman and Hanel, while Jani McCall, Ken Crouch, Al Swanson, Brent Cromley and Becky Bird voted in support of it.
During the discussion and voting, council members said they opposed it for a number of reasons, including constituent lobbying, concerns over how effective it would be and a section prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.
At Monday night’s work session, which took place during the rally nearby, Cromley presented the council with four possible amendments to the ordinance in an effort to make it more appealing to those who voted against it.
The amendments involved changing the language concerning locker rooms and bathrooms, exempting “ma and pa” locally owned businesses in the accommodations language “provided they provide signage,” eliminating awarding attorney fees for related discrimination cases while limiting damage amounts to $3,000 or less and delaying the implementation of the ordinance until Montana Attorney General Tim Fox rules on its validity or for six months, whichever is earlier.
The NDO can only be reconsidered if one of the council members who voted against it starts the process.
“I think that not passing it is going to have reprecussions that we don’t fully understand,” Cromley said.