Gazette opinion: Move forward on Billings nondiscrimination law

2014-06-22T00:00:00Z 2014-06-23T06:23:05Z Gazette opinion: Move forward on Billings nondiscrimination law The Billings Gazette
June 22, 2014 12:00 am

Last Monday, the first time the council took a look at a draft nondiscrimination ordinance, all sorts of delay tactics were dragged out: Have voters decide, have the attorney general decide, refer it to a committee.

Those delay tactics are likely to surface Monday night. We strongly caution the council against them. Don’t abdicate your responsibility. Don’t try to pass the buck to the attorney general or to a committee or to the people who elected you to make decisions for our city.

Having a majority of the voters decide whether a minority is entitled to civil rights is inherently wrong. The Billings City Council should decide, just as dozens of city councils have decided across our great nation.

There is no good reason to ask Attorney General Tim Fox whether the city can enact an NDO. The council has already received legal advice from City Attorney Brent Brooks and his staff that the city has authority to enact such an ordinance. City councils in Missoula, Butte, Helena and Bozeman already have done so over the past four years.

Death by committee is just another way to duck the issue.

The citizens who proposed the nondiscrimination ordinance, proponents and opponents deserve to have the council vote on the proposal in a timely manner.

Those who haven’t yet read the draft ordinance, which the council is scheduled to discuss again on July 7, should know that it:

- Specifically exempts churches, religious schools and school dorms.

- Doesn’t criminalize anything: People who believe they have been discriminated against may bring a civil suit in Billings Municipal Court or victims may report a violation to the Billings Police Department to be investigated and possibly charged as a civil infraction. Under city code, the first instance of a civil infraction has a maximum penalty of a $300 fine, while repeat violations have a maximum of $500. There is no possibility of jail for civil infractions.

Ward 1 Councilman Brent Cromley supports the draft ordinance “as a matter of human rights and civil rights.” Cromley, a long-time Billings attorney said he is pleased with the draft presented by City Attorney Brent Brooks.

Welcoming business

“It is an economically important decision for Billings to keep in step with leading cities to be inviting for visitors and conventions and new businesses,” Cromley told The Gazette. “It’s a huge step forward economically.”

Cromley makes a critical point. Enacting the nondiscrimination ordinance is both right for our citizens and good for business. Local business leaders need to speak up as few have done so far. The Billings Chamber of Commerce executive board had not yet discussed the NDO last week, according to President John Brewer. Big Sky Economic Development, whose mission is to promote Billings business, ought to be on record in support of nondiscrimination.

False claims fan fear

Opponents have made ludicrously false claims that the nondiscrimination ordinance threatens public safety.

In stating support for the ordinance, Sarah K. Rossi, policy director for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence debunked the ordinance’s foes in a letter to the council: “To date, nondiscrimination ordinances (which now exist in over 130 cities) have never been used as a defense to a criminal charge. A crime is a crime and this ordinance will not change that or protect anyone who commits an offense. If it did, we would not be in support.”

Unanimous in Bozeman

Our dedicated council members who have already spent many grueling hours on this issue may take heart in knowing that other city councils have endured similar challenges.

In April 2010, the Missoula City Council approved Montanan’s first municipal nondiscrimination ordinance at a meeting that drew more people than any other council session in 30 years, according to a Missoulian report at the time. Opponents picketed outside while folks on all sides of the issue spoke to the council. The council was warned the ordinance would be challenged in court. It hasn’t been in four years.

More recently, the Bozeman City Council unanimously approved a nondiscrimination ordinance, but not till after hearing passionate arguments over a period of months from both sides.

Last month, Houston became the ninth city with a population of more than 100,000 in Texas to enact a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Clergy split over the ordinance. Picketers warned of dire consequences in public restrooms. Opponents threatened to recall council. However, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth have had nondiscrimination ordinances for more than a decade.

Just this week, in the small town of Victor, Idaho, the council unanimously approved a nondiscrimination ordinance that will take effect Monday. Victor is the eighth Idaho city to enact an NDO.

21 state bans

Twenty-one states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sadly, Montana isn’t one of them. Our City Council has authority to right that omission within our city limits. With more than 105,000 residents, Billings is becoming a big city that will need to welcome diversity if it is to grow into a better city.

We again call on our 11 council members to make the right decision, and support a nondiscrimination ordinance that protects the rights of all, inclusive of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual persons.

We agree with Ward 4 Councilwoman Jani McCall who said: “We have a good draft in front of us. It may need some tweaking, but I think we need to move this forward.”

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

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