I was impressed, yet disturbed, about the March 18 article entitled “Not In Our Town request sparks ire.” The article spoke about the March 17 Billings City Council meeting where Mayor Tom Hanel announced a non-discrimination ordinance that has not been submitted to the council would not be discussed.
However, when former Mayor Chuck Tooley asked the council for $25,000 to support the planning of the Not In Our Town 20th Anniversary National Leadership Gathering to be held in Billings on June 20-22, it brought out the anger of some conservative members of our community. As one pastor put it, “…as NIOT grows, it promotes the right of the homosexual agenda.” She went on to say, “the rights of somebody’s choice will override the freedom of religion given to me.”
NIOT started here in Billings in 1993 when when white supremacist activities were taking root in Montana. These racist groups spread their literature around Billings and disrupted African American church services. Then the racists expanded their hate crimes to the Native American population and threw a brick through the window of a Jewish family displaying a menorah. Our law enforcement officials, civic leaders, faith groups, citizen activists and The Gazette took up the cause and stated a strong, powerful anti-racist message: “Not in our town.”
In support of this position The Gazette printed menorahs in the newspaper and many, many Billings citizens displayed these menorahs in their windows, demonstrating their feelings of fairness and equality.
In 1995, PBS presented “Not In Our Town” portraying the Billings story. This program was adopted by other communities in the United States and around the world, including South Africa, Ireland, Czech Republic and Ukraine.
The equality and fairness campaign expanded to Not In Our School. These programs provide a model for communities and schools to build accepting and safe places for our citizens and students. Today, Not In Our School addresses bullying.
The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ... .” I respect an individual’s right to his or her religion and beliefs, but I insist a person does not have the right to politically limit the rights of others to their freedom of religious choice, assembly or beliefs.
I am a member of the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and want to present you with two of our guiding principles. Rev. Barbara Wellsten Hove explains, “The principles are not dogma or doctrine, but rather a guide” for us to live by. To me the two principles that focus on this issue are: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “Justice, equality and compassion in human relations.” I feel these principles have a broader application. They can guide our community in looking to support of the Not In Our Town 20th Anniversary National Leadership Gathering in Billings.
If Billings City Council members allow the individuals who spoke against financially supporting the NIOT 20th Anniversary National Leadership Gathering to sway their vote and not fund this event, we are taking a step backward. Then we would not be supporting our community’s leadership from 20 years ago when they first said “not in our town.”