Gazette opinion: Do citizens need city protection from bias?

2014-04-13T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Do citizens need city protection from bias? The Billings Gazette
April 13, 2014 12:00 am

The most heated city hall debate this spring is on an issue that isn’t scheduled to come before the Billings council till June.

City Council email has been chock full of emotionally charged comments for and against a nondiscrimination ordinance that has yet to be drafted.

Opponents often claim that the yet unwritten nondiscrimination ordinance will give “special” treatment to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Some fear that a nondiscrimination ordinance will infringe on their right to practice their religious beliefs. One minister even told the City Council she fears being forced to officiate at same-sex marriages.

Such claims ignore reality. Montana’s constitution was amended to state that marriage is only between one man and one woman. No city ordinance can change that. Missoula has had a nondiscrimination ordinance for four years, and more recently similar laws have been adopted by city councils in Helena and Butte. Same-sex couples haven’t rushed to those cities for weddings, because they can’t get married in Montana.

The claim that such ordinances confer “special” rights is not borne out by the facts. The Missoula ordinance, for example simply bans discrimination based on “sexual orientation, gender identify or expression” just the same as it forbids discrimination based on race and religion.

In four years, no one has been cited for civil or criminal violation of the Missoula ordinance. Mayor John Engen told The Gazette that the ordinance has allowed citizens to feel safe, comfortable and enfranchised in their community.

Gay and lesbian citizens should have the same rights to freedom from discrimination in employment, housing and freedom from harassment as every other citizen does. No more, no less.

We ask concerned citizens to reflect on what it is like growing up gay in Billings where dozens of people write to the City Council to express their fear and opposition to guaranteeing gay people the same rights as everyone else. Please read the plea to help homeless gay and lesbian teens in today’s Golden Pen letter.

In reporter Mike Ferguson’s April 6 front-page story, one of the gay men interviewed said he endured derogatory comments about gays, and kept his sexual orientation secret until reading City Council emails. He decided to speak out in favor of a nondiscrimination ordinance, but declined to have his employer named in the story.

Most Billings folks know that a brick thrown through a Jewish child’s window at Hanukah galvanized our community to stand against hate 20 years ago. But what many have forgotten about Not in Our Town is that reprehensible vandalism was part of a wave of white supremacist activities. It started nearly a year earlier with flyers attacking homosexuals and racial minorities.

As Billings civil rights activist Eran Thompson said: “We never see one oppression as greater than another.”

We look forward to reviewing a draft nondiscrimination ordinance for the city of Billings. We call on all citizens to demonstrate respect and decorum as they debate whether and how Billings should address discrimination in our town.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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