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Supporters rally in Billings for non-discrimination ordinance

Posted at 11:36 PM, Feb 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 23:39:31-05

Around 100 people turned out to the First Congregational Church in Billings Monday in support of a non-discrimination ordinance for the city.

People heard from LGBTQ people, Billings City Council members, doctors and business owners about their experiences with discrimination in the Billings community.

Judy Hanrahan is on staff at the 406 Pride resource center for LGBTQ- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning- people in Billings. She shared a story of a transient who "stumbled" into the 406 Pride center and the staff made him a hot meal.

“The LGBTQ community is not asking for special treatment. They just want the community to treat them, the way they treat us,” Hanrahan said.

Billings City Council Member Penny Ronning introduced the NDO. On Monday, the council will vote whether to put the NDO on the March 23 agenda.

Ronning is calling this NDO iteration a "Welcoming Diversity Ordinance," after the city motto printed at the top of every council agenda.

"The Magic City: A diverse, welcoming community where people prosper and business succeeds," the motto states.

As the law stands today, LGBTQ people are not protected under federal or state law against discrimination in housing and employment. This means if your boss or landlord finds our you're gay, they have every right to fire or evict you.

The Welcoming Diversity Ordinance looks to change that.

"My employer has been good. I have been able to be myself. I know that with how things are in this town right now, that could change in the blink of an eye," said a transgender Billings woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, CharliAnne.

She told the crowd it took her "over 50 years to find out who I really am," and that there was no question she had to come out. But with no legal protection, her livelihood was at risk.

"There's no safe feeling that, 'well, at least I won't lose my job. They can't fire me if I come out.' Well, right now they can. And it keeps a lot of people stifled," CharliAnne said.

It's not just LGBTQ people who would be protected under the ordinance. Ronning's ordinance also protects against discrimination based on "perceived race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion creed, sex, age, marital or familial status, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression, or because of their association with a person or group of people so identified."

The NDO discussion is happening as the city is gearing up to ask the taxpayers for a mill levy to fix a $5 million shortfall in the public safety and general funds.

Ronning thinks Billings ought to protect the rights of all its citizens before asking for more of their money.

"We have to be able to agree that every citizen deserves freedom from discrimination for basic needs of housing and employment before we can actually get to a conversation about public safety," Ronning said.

In 2014, a similar ordinance was brought before the Council, and was struck down after a tie breaking vote from then-Mayor Tom Hanel.

It will take six yes votes from the council next Monday for the NDO to take the next step to becoming law. After that, it will be brought back March 23 for another vote, followed by two more readings that require a vote. Then, the ordinance would become law.

Ronning said the council at large has been seeing email comments from both sides. Monday's regular agenda contains 10 items, the largest Ronning said she's seen in her three years on the council. The NDO comes up at the very end of the meeting. Ronning expects a long night for the Council.

"I can not guarantee you six votes. But I am here to tell you, that the only perfect time to stand up against injustice, is when injustice is present."

To read the full NDO, click here.