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Ronning plans to reintroduce non-discrimination ordinance to Billings City Council

Timetable uncertain
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Posted at 9:52 PM, Feb 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 16:15:39-05

BILLINGS — Billings non-discrimination ordinance sponsor Penny Ronning said Tuesday she plans to bring the ordinance back to the council again after it died before making it to the agenda but gave no specific date when she would do so.

“Is this the end? Nope. It's just the beginning. I will absolutely be bringing this forward again. This conversation doesn't end," Ronning, a Billing City Council member, told Q2 over the phone Tuesday.

The vote on the draft NDO was to decide whether to put it on the agenda for further discussion in August. The Council decided not to move the NDO forward with a 7-4 vote.

With the ordinance, supporters were aiming to protect LGBTQ people, among others, from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“The vote last night was not about the draft ordinance at all. The vote last night about the council having the willingness to have a public conversation about equality with the LGBTQ people within our community here in Billings," Ronning said.

Ronning said she left Monday night's meeting feeling like progress was made.

"I left last night feeling like we’re moving forward with this. The feeling last night in the chamber from 2014 to now was one of increased conversation and increased amount of support,” Ronning said.

She was referring to a vote nearly six years ago, when the Council voted down a previous iteration of the NDO 6-5.

Ronning disagreed with current council members who said they wanted to throw out the entire ordinance because they didn't like a specific section. The NDO that was decided on Monday night was a draft that could have been amended.

Ronning introduced the ordinance on Jan. 27, which she said gave other Council members plenty of time to make amendments if they desired.

“That conversation could have taken place," Ronning said.

Ronning likened the failed vote to taking away the voice of the LGBTQ community in Billings' democracy.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole was one of the seven no votes. He told the council Monday that he believed the NDO would conflict with people's constitutional right to religious freedom.

“I disagree strongly with Bill’s comments that he made about the proposed language possibly being unconstitutional," Ronning said.

Business owners who were NDO opponents said at the meeting said they didn't want to provide services, such as photography at a gay wedding, to people with whom they morally disagree.

Ronning said that the U.S. government has regulated religious practices in the past. She mentioned the government outlawed Mormon religion's former practice of polygamy, or the taking of multiple wives.

“There are things where the law comes in to say ‘no, you don’t have the right to use your religion in that way against other people,’” Ronning said.

As a self-described Christian woman, Ronning said the NDO discussion should be taken out of a religious context and placed in one of civil rights.

"What religious freedom means in our country is that you, the individual, have the right to worship the divine or whatever higher power one chooses to worship. You have the right to worship in that way. You have the right to live your life within legal boundaries," Ronning said.

As the city formulates an ask for an upcoming public safety mill levy, the Council should protect the rights of all citizens before asking for their tax dollars, Ronning said.

“When you hear Council members say 'an NDO takes away from public safety.' Come on. What did you sign up for? You have to have the bandwidth and the energy to have systemic conversations as well as, how do we address physically the systemic problems that are in our community,” Ronning said.