Gazette opinion: Stand up for equal rights, City Council members

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z 2014-06-09T07:32:04Z Gazette opinion: Stand up for equal rights, City Council members The Billings Gazette
June 08, 2014 12:00 am

Over the past few months dozens of people in Billings and beyond have commented on our Opinion pages about the consideration of a nondiscrimination ordinance for our city. Some letter-to-the-editor writers have complained that they are unable to find a copy of this NDO.

Well, that’s understandable. The ordinance doesn’t exist. In January, the City Council voted 10-1 to direct the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would ban discrimination against anyone in our city. The council ordered the draft to be scheduled for a council work session in mid-June, after the annual budget work is complete.

However, two weeks ago, another council vote stopped the draft work. The council majority decided to duck the issue.

That decision cannot stand. We cannot be a great city and condone discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation any more than we can allow discrimination based on race or religion. Billings must be a welcoming city that embraces diversity. "Not in our town" has long been the Billings mantra rejecting discrimination. The City Council must continue that principled stand.

Complete the draft

On Monday night, the council must vote to have staff complete the draft ordinance so the council and other citizens of Billings can read it. Let’s all know what we are debating. The public dialogue must continue to craft an ordinance that guarantees the minority the same rights enjoyed by the majority.

Opponents who contend that there is no discrimination in Billings against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons turn a blind eye to the truth.

Sabrina Currie of Tumbleweed wrote a heart-wrenching letter about “countless” teens she has worked with in Billings whose families kicked them out of their homes because they are gay or lesbian.

“Teenagers are being thrown away by family members because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” Currie wrote.

Marty Ortiz said she is a second-class citizen because: “I can be fired from a job, evicted from my home or denied public accommodations simply for being me or for loving someone else.”

City legal authority

Montana has a Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on race, gender and religion, but it is silent on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Basically, charter cities (of which Billings is one) have authority to make local decisions unless state law prohibits it, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson told The Gazette.

In Friday’s Gazette, Ken Peterson, a former Billings city attorney and former state lawmaker, argued that state law prohibits cities from banning discrimination.

Nelson disagrees. Likewise, Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks concludes that an NDO such as those enacted in other Montana cities is legal. Obviously, the city attorneys in Missoula, Helena, Bozeman and Butte researched the legality of their nondiscrimination ordinances before they were presented to their city councils and approved. None of the ordinances have been challenged in court since Missoula enacted the first four years ago.

No person of faith need fear that his religious practices will be infringed if the Billings City Council ends up approving an ordinance barring discrimination in housing, employment and business. The First Amendment Protects freedom of religion, it supersedes any city ordinance.

We call on each and every council member to think about the kind of community you want Billings to be: The last, best foothold of discrimination, or a safe, respectful city that thrives on diversity?

We commend Councilwoman Jani McCall for her leadership in proposing the non-discrimination initiative in January.

“We’re not going to give up,” McCall said last week. “We just won’t.”

We thank her and council members Becky Bird, Ken Crouch, Brent Cromley and Al Swanson, who have consistently stood up for equal rights.

We call on Tom Hanel, Denis Pitman, Angela Cimino, Mike Yakawich, Rich McFadden and Shaun Brown to change their votes Monday night.

Take a look at Billings’ reputation as Montana’s Trailhead, superb medical center and regional hub for shopping, industry, arts and culture. Discrimination does not fit into that description.

Don’t abandon the citizens of Billings who have shared their personal stories of being rejected in our town. This debate isn’t going to go away. Now is the time to take a stand against discrimination.

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

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