Steve Marsh was more than a little surprised when the Billings City Council rejected an offer from the Masons to lay a cornerstone in the new city library.
March, a past master of the Masons' Rimrock Lodge, didn't expect the offer to generate much controversy or to be construed as an attempt by the Masons to publicize their fraternity.
"It's not an advertising ploy," Marsh said. "It's just what we've done traditionally for the past few hundred years."
It appears the Masons will have another chance to make their case. City Councilman Rich McFadden did not attend the April 22 meeting at which the Masons' offer was rejected.
He said he plans to bring the item up for reconsideration at the council's next business meeting, on May 13.
City Attorney Brent Brooks confirmed this week that Robert's Rules of Order, as well as past practice, allow a council member who was absent at one meeting to ask for reconsideration of a vote at the next meeting.
The donation was rejected on a 5-4 vote because McFadden was absent and Mayor Tom Hanel, a Mason who also belongs to the Rimrock Lodge, recused himself from the vote.
Hanel said he would consider voting on the issue at the next meeting, but only if Brooks assures him that there would be no conflict of interest.
If Hanel were to mix his roles as a public servant and a member of the Masons, he apparently would be in good company.
According to a brochure published by the fraternity, Benjamin Franklin, then the grand master Mason of Pennsylvania, laid the cornerstone of the statehouse in Philadelphia. And George Washington, as president and a Freemason, as members of the order are also called, laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol.
Tom Hornung, secretary and past master of the Rimrock Lodge, said that closer to home, President Teddy Roosevelt, a Mason, laid the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park in 1903.
Councilman Mark Astle, who voted against the donation, said those examples are interesting but instructive in another way, in that all of them are quite old. He said the government no longer allows Masons to lay cornerstones in federal buildings, and the ceremony has become increasingly rare.
And for good reason, he said, because private organizations have no business putting their name on public buildings. If they do — think Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark — they pay for the privilege, he said.
The library "belongs to everybody," he said. "It doesn't belong to the Masons. ... If they want to put up a million bucks, I'd say, hey, we'll put a sign up."
Astle also said he is already planning to be absent from May 13 meeting. If the item is voted on again and Hanel recuses himself, it could pass on a 5-4 vote.
"So I'll bring it back for a vote at the next meeting," he said, and if someone else is gone then, this could become a regular event.
The tradition that the local Masons are hoping to continue dates back to the days when stonemasons who built grand structures like cathedrals and castles would ceremoniously place the cornerstone, usually attended by worthies representing church and state.
In time, the Masons evolved from a working guild to a fraternal organization. Hornung said the laying of cornerstone became the Masons' signature event, just as the VFW is known for Memorial Day observances and the American Legion for donating flags to schools.
For that matter, Hornung said, the room where the City Council meets features a large "Freedom Shrine" of replicas of historical documents — and a sign and a plaque bearing the name of the shrine's donors, the National Exchange Club.
Astle said there's a difference: The Exchange Club is "a civic organization, it's not a secret organization."
Hanel said the fraternity does have some rituals and passwords but is not technically a secret society.
"That's probably why it failed," he said of the cornerstone vote — "a lack of knowledge and understanding, or a misunderstanding."
Councilwoman Angela Cimmino, who voted in favor of the donation, said the Masons, though they may not have contributed directly to the building of the new library, "do a lot for the community." The donation is simply "a goodwill gesture," she said.
Cimmino said that when council members were touring the under-construction library earlier this week, she suggested establishing a subcommittee that could evaluate public donations from all private groups and organizations.
"I just think there's room at the table for everyone," she said.
Hornung said the cornerstone, if approved, would be relatively small, 2 feet by 1 foot, and the Masons' name and symbol — a compass and square — would appear in small figures at the bottom of the stone.
Any other wording, honoring the City Council, donors, architects, etc., would be chosen by the city and would be featured prominently and above references to the Masons, he said.