The Billings nondiscrimination ordinance may not have been on the City Council’s agenda on Monday, July 28, but it was certainly on the minds of nearly a dozen citizens who spoke during the public comment session at the end of the meeting.
The NDO is scheduled for a public hearing, and perhaps a vote by the council, on Aug. 11.
“This council has heard almost everything there is to hear on this issue for many hours,” Mayor Tom Hanel told the crowd. “If what you’re going to say has been said many times before, please consider not speaking before the council.”
Despite this warning, the speakers mostly made points that had already been discussed many times before in this debate.
All but one of the speakers were opposed to the NDO. The opponents expressed three main concerns.
The first was that the NDO could potentially lead to litigation.
“I was visiting with my sister who runs a staffing agency here in town,” Mark Hall said. “She said sexuality does occasionally come up in an interview process, but she has been instructed by her corporation to ignore it. She is very concerned that when people make that known and they’re not placed in a job, they could bring forward litigation and say that they were not hired for the reason of sexual orientation. Her belief as a person who runs a staffing agency is that the NDO is pretty vague and pretty risky for employers.”
Tom Jones echoed Hall’s statements. “If the Billings NDO is passed, I believe it will open a can of worms that will divide our city and create a field day for attorneys,” he said.
The second concern was that the NDO created rights for transgender people that posed a risk to women’s rights.
College student Kyndall Miller was concerned that the NDO could lead to the end of single-gender dorm rooms.
“As a current college student and someone who lived in the dorms for two years, language like this concerns me as it could open up so many doors to unintended consequences,” she said. “I just ask that you allow my generation the same freedoms that your generation and your parents’ generation had.”
Similarly, Janice Lin of the Montana Rescue Mission was concerned about the potential mingling of the sexes in the women’s shelter.
“Across America, women’s homeless shelters are being required to house males who identify themselves as transgender,” she said. “In Washington, D.C., a women’s shelter was sued because it refused to house a man who was transgender. In Portland, the shelters were required to house transgender people despite complaints by female residents. In Toronto, a sexual predator posing as transgender gained access to the woman’s shelter because he had the legal right to be there. During his stay, he raped two women.”
Lin continued, “The women housed by the Montana Rescue Mission have often been battered and abused. They enter the shelter knowing that they will live in close intimate proximity with other women. Women do not agree to live in this situation with males of any kind. The rights of the transgender person cannot be more important than those of everybody else who lives in the shelter.”
The third concern expressed by opponents was that Christian churches and business owners would be forced to provide services to the LGBT community - even if it validated their Christian beliefs.
The Rev. Terry Forke was disappointed in the definition of an employer in the proposed NDO.
“The sentence I consider to be ineffective reads ‘It does not include a fraternal, charitable, or religious association or corporation unless the business is for private profit or to provide accommodations or services that are provided on a non-membership basis,’” he said. “This will exclude virtually no Christian congregations. Christian congregations are organized to serve both members and non-members.”
Forke continued with a list of services that Christian churches provide to both members and non-members such as food distributions, clothing distributions, financial assistance, disaster relief, vacation Bible schools, summer camps, pastoral visits and temporary housing.
“If you think that the language of this ordinance prevents Christian congregations from discrimination, you are sadly mistaken,” he said.
Donna Braun was concerned that the NDO could cause problems for Christian business owners as well.
“There is no exemption for people of faith in the public accommodations law,” she said. “This ordinance, if enacted, will be used to force business owners to violate their own sincerely held religious beliefs. This could potentially violate First Amendment rights … . Without accommodations for people of faith, the city government is assuming power unto itself to take away freedoms and to control what these businesses do.”
Dennis Ulvestead was the only citizen who spoke in favor of the NDO.
“Transgenders have their convictions and the religious side have their convictions also,” he said. “We should respect each other on that. Transgenders have a right to dress as whatever they may be. It’s none of our business. I am in complete support of the NDO.”
In all, the public comments on Monday served as a reminder of what a complicated and sensitive issue the NDO has become.
“Any way this is rewritten, it will still discriminate against someone,” Braun said.