Is it possible that Mayor Tom Hanel was right?
I don’t mean right to cast the deciding vote against a nondiscrimination ordinance in Billings last week. I mean right that this town just isn’t ready for such an ordinance.
You could make a case that when any issue splits both the community and the City Council this deeply and evenly, it’s probably time to back off. True, the vote undermines Billings’ status as the Not in Our Town city, but maybe that needed undermining. Those rose-colored glasses may deserve a darker shade.
I didn’t go to any of the meetings – putting out a newspaper every week definitely cuts into meeting time – but I listened to eight or 10 hours of discussion and public comment on Community 7 over the course of this laborious debate. If I learned anything, I learned that hour after hour of three-minute public comments doesn’t do much to achieve consensus on knotty issues.
Arguments by opponents largely boiled down to statements of religious beliefs, which are not really relevant to a secular debate.
Concerns that the ordinance might violate the religious rights of bakers or photographers forced to bake a cake or take a picture for a same-sex couple surfaced repeatedly, far more often than the actual number of bakers and photographers would suggest.
That argument remains impenetrable to me. I agree that the Bible considers homosexuality a sin, at least in certain passages, but the Bible also says that we are all sinners.
Judged strictly on our merits, we would all spend eternity in Hell. It isn’t clear to me that the Bible considers homosexuality a direr sin that lying, gluttony, tax cheating or texting while driving.
And I have yet to find a scripture that says sinners like us are forbidden to bake a cake that will ease the passage of other sinners through this vale of tears. When Jesus talks in Matthew about Judgment Day, he doesn’t talk about saving those who follow the rules. He talks about saving those who help the poor, the sick, the imprisoned – sinners, all of them.
The First Amendment requires that we take such religious arguments seriously, even if the Bible does not. Council members Angela Cimmino and Mike Yakawich both said they based their no votes in large part on feedback from constituents.
This is particularly disappointing coming from Mr. Yakawich, a well intentioned fellow whom I first met as minister of a church that many would consider a cult and some would consider downright wacko. If anyone should appreciate the danger of allowing majority religious beliefs to determine public policy, he should be the one.
The most coherent arguments against the ordinance came from council members Denis Pitman and Rich McFadden. Mr. Pitman said such matters should be settled at the legislative or congressional level, not by city councils.
True enough, but we all know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The only oppressed minority that Congress can muster majority support for is veterans. Incompetence in Washington cannot be an excuse for failing to do the right thing in Billings.
Mr. McFadden argued that the ordinance is another example of government overreach, a further extension of the nanny state. This argument, too, must be taken seriously whenever it is raised. Governments do overreach.
But it’s hard to see why we would draw the line on a civil rights issue. If government has any legitimate function, then surely it is to protect the rights of those who cannot protect themselves.
A good friend told me Saturday that the entire exercise was a waste of time. I don’t think so, even if all of those hours and hours of public comment failed to swing a single vote. Like those objects in the rearview mirror, the sides may not be as far apart as they appear.
Some supporters of the ordinance came away having learned that opponents’ fears are genuine, even if exaggerated. Some opponents came away knowing that the alphabet soup of sexual orientations labels people who have suffered real pain, and real discrimination.
Hardly anyone expressed a belief that people of other sexual orientations should be forced out of their jobs and homes to beg for a living on the streets. To avoid that outcome, Christians who believe their religion compels them to shun homosexuals face a quandary: Their liberty to deny services to homosexuals is possible only to the extent that other citizens fail to share their beliefs.
The more successful these Christians are at persuading others to believe as they do, the more urgently a nondiscrimination ordinance will be needed. Let’s hope the mayor doesn’t wait too long to decide we are ready.