In the left corner, Eran Thompson, leader of “Not in Our Town” and employed by the American Cancer Society/Cancer Action Network.
In the right corner, Jeff Laszloffy, chief executive officer of Montana Family Foundation and author of Montana’s One Man One Woman Marriage constitutional amendment.
I have known and respected both men for a long time. Eran was the first person of color to be a page in the Montana House of Representatives. I was his sponsor. Jeff was elected to my seat in the Montana Legislature when I was barred by term limits.
While several have reported on the spectacle of Billings’ proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, the driving personalities and agendas remained blurred, until now. Erin and Jeff were given similar questions.
1. What do you hope to accomplish through (opposing) this effort?
Eran: “Make Billings a more safe and inclusive place.” “Gay people face challenges in housing, employment and public accommodations. I want the gay community to enjoy the same rights that I, as a straight man, enjoy; to work and live where they want to and to marry the person of their choice.”
Jeff: “We hope to kill it. This issue has been before the Legislature for 15 years and has been killed every time. There is no evidence it is needed and there is a very real threat of unintended consequences. The Montana Board of Crime Control shows only one or two cases based on sexual orientation per year and those are for assault, which is already covered by Montana law. Missoula and Helena have had no complaints in the four years since passing NDOs, proving they are not needed.
“Our fear is of unintended consequences. With state level NDOs it is not unheard of for violators to be fined, jailed and sent to sensitive training so they can adopt politically correct thoughts. State statutes have real teeth in them and that is where this is headed.”
2. What specific examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation do you offer?
Eran: “I will not tell the stories of others but I will put you in touch with them and they can talk to you if they want.”
Jeff: “Nationally there are no complaints that I, or the involved lawyers, can find at the city level.”
3. What sort of enforcement do you envision?
Eran: “I would prefer civil cases.”
Jeff: “I would prefer that people not be penalized for following their religious or personal convictions but rather that the freedom of expression be maintained for all.”
4. This has been moving from the most liberal counties (Missoula, Silverbow, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin) to the more conservative (Yellowstone). Is the desired end game to have a similarly worded NDO at the state level? Who has been coordinating the efforts?
Erin: “Duh! Yes, the ‘end game’ is to build momentum for statewide legislation based on the success in our larger cities. The coordinating groups are the ACLU, Human Rights Network, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and The PRIDE Foundation.”
Jeff: “It has not gotten much press but this is their political stratagem. The Billings Family Action Group, headed by Dick Pence, is the lead group. Montana Family Foundation is in a supportive role.”
5. Does the city have the authority to tell families, landlords and employers with whom they must interact, rent to, and employ, based on sexual presentation, under threat of legal action? Is forced “acceptance” really a victory?
Eran: “I am not a lawyer but the city attorneys for Missoula, Butte, Helena and Bozeman think so. So does Brent Brooks, the attorney for Billings. However, Ken Peterson, the former attorney for the city of Billings, says they do not. I feel it is appropriate to use the power of government to force acceptance for public accommodations, employment and housing.”
Jeff: “No and no. If they pass the NDO, expect legal action. The city would be well advised to seek an attorney general’s opinion before they go further as they are clearly exceeding their power on several fronts. The landlord tenant law gives that enforcement power to the state and the same with contract law.
“And there are First Amendment rights. This could spawn many very expensive lawsuits. For example, if a videographer is opposed to gay marriage but is compelled to show it in a positive light, what has happened to his freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Is it right that he could be bankrupted defending it?”
6. If the city has this power, then might not a future city administration also mandate to whom you may not offer employment, housing or public accommodations?
Eran: “Yes they would, and I would have the right to protest.”
Jeff: “There is that theory but I don’t think that the city should have either power.”
7. Why did you not seek a referendum on the question and if one is started would you win?
Eran: “Many in our groups wanted to go with a referendum. But I do not believe that civil rights are up for popular vote. If we win at the City Council and repeal by referendum is offered, then we will win that as well.”
Jeff: “We see three possibilities. We could have a legal challenge to the city’s right to pass an NDO. Or we could block implementation through a ballot initiative. City Administrator Tina Volek said the emails are coming in at 80-20 opposed to the NDO. Along with the signature gathering effort, we would offer a signed pledge to vote ‘no’ on every mill levy increase, including the Public Safety Mill Levy, until it is repealed.”
8. Are you aware of any litigation spawned by NDOs in cities around the U.S.?
Eran: “I am not aware of any.”
Jeff: “City NDOs do not seem to spawn lawsuits. The lawsuits happen when the state passes an NDO and people are targeted because that is where the teeth are and big settlements happen so more law firms are interested.”