In what might be the biggest political miscalculation of the year, Billings Mayor Tom Hanel announced on Monday evening that he was changing his vote and would allow a proposed, so-called Non-Discrimination Ordinance to be drafted. These ordinances have been used around the country to harass people of faith and recently resulted in a Colorado baker being ordered to take sensitivity training because he refused to take part in a homosexual marriage ceremony.

Predictably, emotions on both sides were running high, and hundreds of people showed up for the hearing. Hanel thought that if he announced early that he would change his vote, people would get discouraged and go home. The move backfired and just the opposite occurred. The hearing began at 6:30 p.m. and finished at 7:00 a.m. the next morning, setting the record for the longest public hearing in Billings City Council history, and this wasn’t even the vote on the actual ordinance. It was just a vote to continue with the drafting process.  Give Today!

Hanel’s actions did nothing less than widen an already growing rift in the community and put an upcoming vote on the safety mill levy increase in jeopardy. Who in their right mind would vote for a tax increase that will be used in part to fund enforcement of an ordinance that makes criminals out of citizens for simply following God’s Word? Hanel thought a quick vote would diffuse the situation, but instead he just threw gas on the fire.

This is shaping up to be a Battle Royale with citizens threatening the ordinance with a ballot initiative, if it passes. These NDOs do nothing but fragment and divide communities.  Pastors are outraged, citizens are up in arms, and even the City Council is fractured, and for what?  To solve a nonexistent problem.

Proponents of NDOs claim they stop discrimination on people based on their sexual orientation in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodation. In the four Montana cities that have passed NDOs, they’ve never been used, not even once. Passing a law, hopefully, acts as a deterrent, but it never reduces the incidence of that crime to zero. Never. The fact that no one has ever been charged under one of these ordinances proves that the City Councils courageously solved a nonexistent problem.

People in Montana live and let live. What they don’t want is to be forced to participate in an act that they find offensive, such as a same-sex commitment ceremony. A Christian wedding planner should no more be forced to plan a same-sex wedding than a gay ad agency should be forced to create an ad singing the praises of the Westboro Baptist Church. Jewish schools should not be forced to hire Muslim teachers and a Muslim caterer should not be forced to serve pork at a barbecue. All of these violate religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. The First Amendment either means something or it doesn’t. The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution were put there to protect religious freedom.

Citizens should never be forced to choose between God and government. The very idea runs contrary to the most deeply held belief of the Founders themselves. Mayor Hanel needs to step back and remember the proper role of city government. Setting water and sewer rates is one thing, trampling religious freedom is quite another.