The sign “We refuse the right to service anyone” in a business is one generally reserved for unruly customers who are disturbing other customers, or infringing upon an establishment’s right to provide equal services to all patrons.
However, while laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are enacted to protect people against discrimination based on race, sex, religion and disabilities, there are no federal laws against someone refusing service to someone based on sexual orientation.
A proposal for a nondiscrimination ordinance that would prohibit such violations was forwarded to the Billings City Council, but on a 6-5 vote on May 28, the city staff was ordered to stop work on the NDO.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, who cast the deciding vote
, shelved the NDO until it’s further discussed on June 9, and said, “The city of Billings does not discriminate ... . I’m having a very difficult time supporting the nondiscrimination ordinance. I think the time is not good.”
His claim that Billings does not discriminate, however, was rebuked by some supporters of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered individuals (LGBT) rights.
“Just because people don’t personally witness discrimination, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” said Billings Human Rights Commission Chair Walt Donges.
“We’ll be walking be walking down the straight and hear, ‘Faggot!’ yelled at us, but what can we do?” Donges said. “We keep silent and turn the other cheek because we have to. Otherwise it makes us all look bad if we lash out.”
HRC member Charlene Sleeper concurred.
“A lot of LGBT people live in the closet because they’re scared that if they’re LGBT, they’re going to lose their jobs, or lose their homes. So a lot of people aren’t out of the crowd because they want to protect their families, loved ones and livelihood,” she said. “There’s a large LGBT community here in Billings, but it’s a silent one.”
Both supporters and opponents of the ordinance are rallying those on their side to urge the City Council to take – or decline to take – action on the ordinance. Billings Family Action is hosting a talk on Friday by Joseph Infranco of Alliance Defending Freedom on issues raised by the ordinance and by same-sex marriages.
Donges co-founded Montana Equality Partners with Cole Kortum, a network dedicating itself to be a “central hub for communications pertaining to equal rights and civil rights for everyone.”
Donges said having an NDO makes a city more attractive to business and industry, thus promoting a more stable economy.
“First and foremost, Billings has long been known for promoting diversity, and if Billings of all places doesn’t want to have a NDO to protect its citizens, then that’s going to drive away investors,” he said.
He noted the irony of Billings not embracing the NDO despite of the fact it’s the birthplace of Not in Our Town. In the meantime, on Monday Bozeman became the fourth Montana city to adopt an NDO along with Helena, Missoula and Butte.
Donges said while many people fear that the NDO will override religious freedoms, clauses exempting religions would be in the NDO.
“Opposition groups already have equal rights, but the LGBT community doesn’t,” he said. “They rely on unfounded arguments based on emotion and scaremongering, and unfortunately the City Council bought into those fears.”
Some of those fears were expressed in an email to supporters from Dick Pence of the Billings Family Action Committee, who wrote, “This ordinance would pave the way for lawsuits against businesses, churches, private schools, day care centers, and other organizations that – because of their faith – refuse to hire homosexual or transgender individuals.”
Most people agree that denying LGBT people employment, housing and services in restaurants and hotels is wrong, he said, but added, “There are times, however, when these general rules against discrimination should give way to more important principles against forcing someone to violate their conscience or inhibit free speech.”
The ACLU Montana notes that while state law prohibits discrimination for employment, housing and patronizing public places based on race, sex, religion, and disabilities, “it does not protect on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Gay, lesbian and transgender Montanans can be fired from a job, kicked out of housing and denied service at hotels and restaurants simply for who they are.”
“So someone could be fired, or they could come home and be kicked and locked out of their house based on the fact that the landlord found out they were gay,” Donges said. “And if a policeman was sitting there, there’s nothing he could do about it as the law would have to be on the landlord’s side.”
“There are those who claim the LGBT want special privileges,” Kortum said. “But it’s not a special right, it’s an equal right.”
Sleeper pointed out a renewed attack against things like NDOs protecting LGBT began in the aftermath of comments in GQ magazine by Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.”
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson told GQ. “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
Such comments had him suspended from his popular reality show. The fresh arguments stemming from his suspension, however, were based on restricting religious freedoms.
“If you go through the Helena and Missoula anti-NDO arguments from a few years ago, there’s no mention of religious freedom,” Sleeper said. “It wasn’t until the after ‘Duck Dynasty’ controversy came along you see the ‘religious freedom’ argument injected into it.”
She theorizes it was part of a larger strategy formulated by opponents of gay marriage.
“It’s like they made people afraid of their own religious rights, and had them jumping to conclusions without them knowing the facts of what marriage equality or NDOs do or how it would even affect them,” Sleeper said. “It was like, ‘Oh, they’re just trying to take away your religious freedoms!’ And people are running with it right now.”
One argument that frequently arises in headlines is that someone who opposes gay marriage should be able to refuse to make a wedding cake for homosexuals because of their religious beliefs.
But supporters of the NDO argue that being held to the same standards as other establishments does not violate one’s First Amendment rights once an “OPEN” for business sign goes up offering services to the public.
“Just as a business can’t hang a sign on their doors saying, ‘Whites Only,’ they can’t hang a sign or adopt a policy of ‘Heterosexuals Only,’” notes the ACLU Montana website. “We are entitled to our religious beliefs, but not to discriminate against other people.”
Kortum concluded, “The emotions that have always been there regarding opposition to the LBGT community will always be there. This is just going to make it so it protects everyone.”