MISSOULA — This summer, a Missoula-area pastor and part-time real estate agent withdrew his church a from local food-assistance program that distributed fliers promoting PRIDE week and LGBTQ rights, saying it was contrary to the church’s biblical doctrine.
Now, Pastor Brandon Huber of the Clinton Community Church is facing an ethics complaint before a Missoula Realtors' group for engaging in “hate speech” – and has filed suit to void the Realtors’ ethics rule.
The lawsuit, filed last week in state District Court in Missoula, says Huber could be fined $5,000 by the Realtors' group and barred from using its multiple listing service, thus making it virtually impossible for him to continue as an agent. However, those penalties are the maximum, which aren't necessarily imposed for a violation.
“Pastor Huber’s speech was not `hateful’ under any reasonable definition of that term,” said the suit.
The lawsuit asks the court to void the rule, saying it’s too vague to be enforced, and that it discriminates against Huber for exercising his religious beliefs.
“The stakes are enormous,” said Huber’s attorney, Matthew Monforton of Bozeman. “The Realtors’ hate-speech rule is intended to purge Christians from the real-estate business. If you are a Christian who believes the way that tens of millions of American Christians do that homosexuality is wrong, there is simply no way that you can participate as a Realtor, with the kind of hate-speech prohibition that exists.”
James Bowditch, an attorney representing the Missoula Organization of Realtors, said Wednesday he and his client are reviewing the suit and will respond when appropriate.
Yet the president of Big Sky PRIDE, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in Montana, told MTN News he’s not sympathetic at all to Huber’s possible plight before the Realtors’ group, or the justifying of his actions because of religious beliefs.
“I don’t have any patience for this; I don’t pull any punches on this,” said Kev Hamm of Helena. “The man’s a bigot and he’s getting what he deserves. … These people who hide behind their religion and say, `This is just what I was taught?’ Do better. Grow up.”
The Clinton church, 15 miles east of Missoula, has worked for several years with the Missoula Food Bank to distribute free lunches in the community, to kids who need it. But in June, according to the lawsuit, Huber discovered the lunches would include a flyer that celebrated PRIDE month, honoring the civil-rights movement of the LGBTQ community.
In July, Huber wrote an open letter to his congregation, saying the flyer was contrary to church teachings, and therefore the church would no longer partner with Missoula Food Bank to distribute the lunches. It said the church would still distribute free lunches on its own, and gave out 680 lunches, the suit said.
“Clinton Community Church wants our community to know that we love and support each and every one of you, no matter your background or where you are in life,” Huber’s letter said. “As a church, we strive to show the love of Jesus in all we do throughout this community, while standing up for biblical principles, biblical truths and our beliefs.”
But several weeks later, a local citizen filed a complaint against Huber with the Missoula Realtors group, citing the National Realtors Association’s code of ethics that says Realtors “must not use harassing speech, hate speech, epithets, or slurs based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The code goes on to say that “hate speech” is “intended to insult, offend, intimidate a person because of some trait,” and applies to all facets of a realtors’ life – not just his or her conduct while on the job.
A committee of the Missoula Realtors group reviewed the complaint Aug. 10 and forwarded it to the group’s Professional Standards Committee, which plans to have Huber face a Dec. 2 ethics hearing, the lawsuit said.
Monforton said Huber is being subjected to a “kangaroo proceeding” merely for defending the doctrines of his church and hasn’t engaged in any “hate speech.” He also said the ethics rule can’t legitimately be enforced, because it’s so vague that it’s impossible to know what is inappropriate speech or not.
Hamm said he thinks it’s entirely appropriate for the Realtors or any profession or business to forbid discriminatory conduct or speech toward LGBTQ people.
“We give no quarter to these people who keep attacking us left and right,” he said. “They make it uncomfortable for us to live here. They make it so that we’re in danger. … It is the proper response to say, `We don’t let bigots work here.’ You don’t get to take away our rights.”
The church also is sponsoring a rally, at the church, next Wednesday evening to support Huber and his lawsuit.