You might think there’s nothing left to say about the city’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, given that the Billings City Council endured a 10-hour public hearing on the subject last week.
Maybe, but consider that I endured the same thing — in silence. In that whole crowded City Hall last Monday night and Tuesday morning, the only people who didn’t get a chance to add their two cents were the city clerk, the cops on hand for security and those of us in the media. So, here goes.
More than anything else, the experience confirmed my belief that religious considerations have no role to play in this kind of civic debate. They can influence individual beliefs, but they cannot be used to interpret laws.
Governmental bodies like the City Council deal ultimately with laws grounded in the U.S. Constitution. There are and always have been differences of opinion on laws, but in our carefully constructed system of government we have multiple layers of judicial review, and the arbiter of last resort is the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the question of morality, of sin, enters the equation, as it has in the debate over an NDO, which would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification, no such system of review exists, and there is no arbiter with any real authority.
There used to be, when the Catholic Church was powerful enough to overrule the sovereign rulers of Europe, and there is today in countries like Iran, where governmental leaders are subject to the veto power of religious leaders.
Many pastors and many of their congregants stood before the City Council at that recent hearing and asserted that homosexuality is fundamentally wrong in the eyes of God. They are welcome to their opinion, but what of the ministers and congregants of other churches who stood in support of the NDO?
The fundamentalists will tell you that these people, too, were in error, and will roast in hell with the homosexuals whose sinful “lifestyle” they condone.
But that is a religious point of view and only a religious point of view. The moral question cannot be resolved in the civil sphere. Believers can excommunicate gay people and their supporters from their churches, but they have no business and no constitutional basis for excluding them from full participation in civil society.
What supreme court do we have for resolving moral questions, for interpreting the will of God as found in the Christian Bible? How many of the religious leaders who presumed to know exactly where God stands on this issue would subject their interpretations to a vote by a body of religious arbiters — an inclusive body embracing various religions?
What else did I learn watching that interminable debate? That every single time the American experiment in freedom expands, the forces of reaction line up to say that the experiment has gone far enough.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution included the equal protection clause. It was meant to extend full civil rights to all citizens, including freed slaves and their descendants. Inevitably, the forces of reaction chipped away at the 14th Amendment with a thousand and one state and local laws that disenfranchised black citizens and kept them rigidly segregated.
It took nearly another century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made more explicit and enforceable the intent of the 14th Amendment, and for good measure it outlawed discrimination based not only on race but on color, religion, sex and national origin.
Now, people want to extend those same protections — the same guarantees of equal protection and equal access to the full spectrum of civil rights — to people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identification. The absurd argument that they are being granted “special rights” makes no more sense in this case than it did in regard to the Civil Rights Act.
All Monday night and Tuesday morning at that City Council hearing, opponents kept making the claim that all citizens are already protected by existing laws. The same arguments were made in the debate on the Civil Rights Act, but a majority in the U.S. Congress evidently did not agree.
We have a different Congress today, a Congress in which a majority could not agree to state whether the sun rises in the east or the west. As a result, in a beautiful example of grass-roots activism, believers in the American experiment are working on the local level to extend basic rights to a wider circle of citizens.
It was gratifying to see that all three women on the City Council were on the prevailing side last week, when the council voted 7-4 to move forward with consideration of a nondiscrimination ordinance.
If not for the 19th Amendment, finally ratified in 1920, those three women would not have had the “special right” to serve on the City Council, much less to vote on the NDO.