I hope you didn’t hear as much of the Billings City Council’s public hearing on a nondiscrimination ordinance this week as I did. You need your rest.
I watched the beginning Monday night on Community Seven television, then followed on the internet as I struggled to put together this week’s edition of the Outpost. By about 1 a.m., I had heard as much as I could stand and headed to bed.
There I slept poorly and got up an hour or so later to see that the hearing was still going on. I watched in a dazed stupor on the couch until sleep finally took over. That was after 4 a.m., and the hearing was still going strong.
The evening was a splendid example of both the beauty and squalor of representative democracy. Everybody got a chance to speak, and the great majority of speakers were polite and respectful – a consequence, perhaps, both of good coaching by advocates on each side and of the basic decency of Billings residents.
But two drawbacks accentuated the inefficiency for which democracies are famous. The first was that no actual nondiscrimination ordinance, or NDO, exists; the hearing was on the question of whether the city staff should be directed to resume drafting one. The second was that so many people wished to speak that Mayor Tom Hanel had no choice but to rigidly enforce a three-minute limit on each speaker, which limited in-depth debate.
The drawbacks led to a hearing in which basic talking points were repeated endlessly with little progress toward resolving differences.
Still, I fancied for a while that I heard a path toward agreement that might eventually lead to an ordinance both sides could live with.
Speakers on both sides seemed to agree that gays and lesbians should be allowed to hold jobs and buy property. Even many of those who opposed the ordinance said they knew and liked various gays and lesbians and wanted them to have rights common to all Americans. One minister said that gays and lesbians should be free to marry – members of the opposite sex.
Even some of the differences did not seem insurmountable. For example, a recurring fear of those who opposed the ordinance was that public restrooms might become a hunting ground for sexual perverts of ambiguous sexual identity. I am old enough to remember when similar concerns enlivened public debate about passage of an Equal Rights Amendment.
That amendment ultimately failed, but most of the rights it attempted to secure for women have gradually come into effect over the decades. Still, I have never had to share a restroom with a strange woman, and it seems reasonable that a nondiscrimination ordinance could be drafted to preserve this status quo. An NDO would not in any case resolve complicated restroom choices of truly transgendered people.
Opponents also expressed concerns about violations of their religious rights. One minister feared that he might be required to perform marriages of same-sex couples. That would indeed violate religious liberty, and it’s hard to imagine that the City Council would pass an ordinance with such a provision, or that such an ordinance, if enacted, would pass constitutional muster.
Other religious concerns seemed murkier. Examples of photographers forced to take photos at gay weddings or bakers forced to decorate cakes for gay lovers abounded. I have struggled for months, sometimes in this space, to understand what moral principle is involved when a baker sells a cake or a photographer takes a picture.
So far, I have come up short. But I heard no one argue that moral principle should require, say, McDonald’s or Starbucks to put up signs saying “No homosexuals served here.” If ordinance opponents are willing to concede the basic notion that gays and lesbians ought to be able to buy goods and services without pretending to be straight, then maybe supporters could give ground on photographers and bakers.
So do we have a deal? Probably not. Certain signals indicated that these two sides are not going to come together on this issue.
First, opponents argued both that an ordinance would lead to moral decay and endless litigation and that the lack of problems in cities with NDOs shows that no ordinance is needed. Supporters argued the opposite: Lots of cities have NDOs, so it’s no big deal, but it’s critical that Billings enact one. Not all of these things can be true.
Second, opponents repeatedly argued that homosexuality violates Christian beliefs and that gays and lesbians have chosen to break God’s law. Nobody can be forced to believe this in a country with religious freedom, but it may present an insurmountable obstacle. As one supporter put it, approximately: If you think sexual orientation is a choice, then try changing yours.
Finally, opponents repeatedly said that the ordinance is not about equal rights but about special rights for those who are LGBTQ, an acronym that both sides struggled to pronounce. I honestly don’t understand this argument and never really heard a cogent explanation of it in eight hours of discussion.
But somewhere in it may lie the reason why this topic generated hours of debate while a city budget of $278 million passed without a whimper earlier that evening. Opponents genuinely can’t see any discrimination that would justify an ordinance like this one. Supporters can’t see how opponents miss it.