The Missoula County Court House pictured on December 20, 2020.
A member of the Missoula Organization of Realtors might be out $5,000 — and the ability to do his job — because of a letter he wrote in his role as pastor of a Clinton church, a letter a third party characterized as “hate speech,” according to a lawsuit filed in Missoula County District Court.
Brandon Huber, who works part-time as a realtor and serves as lead pastor of the Clinton Community Church, alleges in the lawsuit that the Missoula Organization of Realtors is violating the Montana Constitution by discriminating against him in the exercise of his religious ideas. Huber also alleges a new prohibition on hate speech by the realtors is too vague in contract law to be enforced.
In November 2020, the National Association of Realtors added a “hate speech” prohibition to its ethics code, and it’s one the local chapter in Missoula enforces, the lawsuit said. In the lawsuit filed Nov. 3, the new rule is under scrutiny following separate activity by the church.
In the past, Huber’s church used to distribute free lunches to children in the summer in partnership with the Missoula Food Bank, according to the lawsuit. This year, however, the lawsuit said the church declined to participate after it found the Food Bank included an LGBTQ “Pride” insert, a coloring page, in the lunches.
In a letter to the congregation, Huber explained the decision: “This has been a great honor for us to be able to support the kids and families in our community with these meals throughout the summer months.
“This past week, we found printed material in the lunches that we were handing out that went against our Biblical doctrine. After conversations with the food bank, we have found that our beliefs and that of the Missoula Food Bank do not align.
“Due to this, Clinton Community Church has decided to end our partnership with the Missoula Food Bank effective today, July 2, 2021.”
The church launched its own lunch program, and Huber described its position and goal in his social media post, which is quoted in the lawsuit and attached as an exhibit: “Clinton Community Church wants our community to know that we love and support each and everyone of you, no matter your background or where you are in life. 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. It is our goal to continue to serve the FREE lunches to kids in our community.”
But the announcement displeased a Clinton resident, who filed an ethics complaint with the Realtors’ grievance committee, the lawsuit said. It said the complainant has never been one of Huber’s real estate clients and has never been a member of the church.
“The bulk of the ethics complaint consists of a long-winded rant against the church for terminating its partnership with the Missoula Food Bank,” the lawsuit said. “The complainant admits that she is ‘wary of food programs that are ‘run by a church’ and I do not feel the same way about the community food bank programs.’”
In the letter, the complainant says, “my gay family is welcome” at the food bank, but the complainant was skeptical of church-run food programs.
As a result of the complaint, the Missoula Organization of Realtors made a preliminary finding that Huber’s statements violate the hate speech prohibition, and the organization is requiring him to submit to an ethics hearing “where he could be assessed a $5,000 fine for his ‘hate speech,’” the lawsuit said.
But the lawsuit alleges a problem with the finding and with the prohibition: “Pastor Huber’s speech was not ‘hateful’ under any reasonable definition of that term. Moreover, the Realtors’ hate-speech prohibition violates the Montana Constitution and is too vague under Montana contract law to be enforced.”
The court document provides the new prohibition and states it applies to all realtor speech, not just speech relating to the job: “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 lawsuit also notes the code’s appendix defines “hate speech” as that “intended to insult, offend or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability).”
Penalties include a $5,000 fine, suspension or termination of membership privileges, including denial of access to the Multiple Listing Service, an online database that sorts available real estate properties.
The court challenge notes Huber works as a realtor, pays membership fees to the Missoula Organization of Realtors, was named Rookie of the Year in 2011 when he started in Washington, has never had any complaints about his work, and has “excellent” client reviews. But he won’t be able to buy and sell property if the organization takes away his ability to use the Multiple Listing Service.
“Without MLS access, Pastor Huber could not work as a realtor,” the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, the Clinton resident who made the complaint alleged “‘all of (Huber’s) comments about gays being an abomination and defilement of scripture were taken down. I can only hope that someone else screenshotted it.’”
The lawsuit counters: “No such screenshots exist because Pastor Huber never made any such comments.”
However, the lawsuit also notes the grievance committee of the realtors reviewed the July 29 ethics complaint on August 10 and found that if true, it “constitutes potentially unethical conduct and will be forwarded to the Professional Standards Committee.” The standards committee “intends to subject Pastor Huber to an ethics hearing on December 2.”
Missoula Organization of Realtors CEO Jim Bachand declined to comment but said the organization would be issuing a statement in response to the allegations in the near future: “At this point, we have no comment.”
Matthew Monforton, a lawyer representing Huber, said it’s clear his client has said nothing offensive or insulting. Plus, he said the letter was to his congregation, not related to his work as a realtor, and his beliefs are consistent with that of many Americans.
“What’s clear is that any Christian who takes the Bible seriously is not going to be able to be a realtor,” Monforton said.Huber v MOR
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