Pastor Brandon Huber of Clinton Community Bible Church testifies in support of SB243 on Feb. 10, 2023 at the Montana Capitol (Photo screenshot via Montana Public Access Network).
You can have your religious beliefs, just don’t put them into practice. That’s what realtors and advocates told Montana lawmakers Friday morning at a hearing on a bill that would require multiple listing services in the state to open their service to real estate agents who are not members of the National Association of Realtors.
The real estate agents said that the national organization’s code of ethics are so severe that many have to choose between speaking about their religious beliefs or keeping a job.
The legislation, Senate Bill 243, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is largely in response to the case of a Missoula-area pastor who has been fined and suspended from the Missoula Organization of Realtors for allegedly expressing the church’s views on homosexuality and the LGBTQ community.
However, opponents countered that Montana law already covers the issue adequately; that the association, a private business organization, has the right to determine its own membership and discipline; and that Pastor Brandon Huber’s actions went far beyond just quoting scripture from the Bible.
The case has drawn national attention to the National Association of Realtors’ code of conduct which regulates realtors actions both on the job and off the job. An ethics complaint was filed against Huber more than a year ago because he and his church were part of a program that stopped support a local food bank program because it included fliers about a LGBTQ pride celebration that he said violates his church’s doctrinal beliefs.
The Missoula Organization of Realtors took disciplinary action against him, and fined him $5,000 and ordered him to take a diversity, equity and inclusion course before allowing him to return. The realtors organization has not commented on the case because it said that all sanctions or disciplinary matters are confidential, both before and after decisions. Huber told community members he would not pay the disciplinary fine because he believes he did nothing wrong and was being sanctioned for actions not related to being a realtor.
He no longer has access to the multiple listing service.
However, opponents of SB243 said that Huber’s conduct went far beyond quoting scriptures or disagreeing with flyers. They said instead that Huber was also a part of a group of churches that hosted a seminar that traveled the state speaking about how LGBTQ issues were trying to infiltrate lives and kill liberty, led by discredited pastor and online news publisher Jordan “J.D.” Hall, who was dismissed from his church after a series of scandals involving drug abuse, missing money and threats.
While Huber didn’t deny any of the allegations during the hearing in front of the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs, he testified that his conduct as a realtor or his ethics in real estate transactions should be the focus of the realtors association, not what he does in his other career, or what he says at home.
Members of the Montana Association of Realtors reminded lawmakers that it is a private organization and that SB243 sought to impose more regulations on a private entity, something that many lawmakers have spoken against previously.
“Those in charge want to dictate or deprive members of talking about topics outside of the realtor profession,” Regier said.
Attorney Matthew Monforton, who represents Huber and is a former lawmaker, put it in more blunt terms.
“This is the most religiously bigoted policy of any professional organization in the country,” he said. “If we recite a Bible passage that condemns homosexuality or refer to Genesis where God creates a man and a woman, but offends someone who is nonbinary, is that hate speech? The answer, according to the National Association of Realtors is yes. The Bible constitutes hate speech.”
Monforton said hate speech is a relative and poorly defined term by the realtors – so broad that it can encompass any activity. That means that individuals with political or religious differences could target each other for speech or action that has nothing to do with real estate.
The National Association of Realtors and its affiliates in Montana, which include eight different regions that run multiple listing services were described as essential to real estate agents because while many websites have data about available property or listings, none of them except the MLS collect data on what real estate prices sell for. That means real estate agents who don’t have that information are at a disadvantage, and selling information, including price, is considered private personal data and unavailable under state law. Realtors argued without MLS access, they cannot function. Monforton called it a “death sentence” if you’re a real estate agent and don’t have access.
“This is a cancer that’s spread, and people are watching what we’re doing here in Montana,” Monforton said. “It’s ground zero in the start of anti-Christian bigotry.”
Huber testified that he has been forced to choose between his faith and a way to support his family, which includes seven kids. He recounted for lawmakers the threats he’s received after the situation became public, which included death threats and comments wishing all Christians death.
“I come before you a broken man,” he said.
He recounted a story about sitting on his bed, contemplating what to do about the situation.
“God spoke to me and said, ‘If you’re not willing to stand for this, what are you willing to stand for,’” he said.
The hearing on Friday was full of petitions of other real estate agents throughout Montana who supported Regier’s bill.
However, Angelina Gonzalez-Aller, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said the organization opposes the bill because state law already said it’s illegal to block realtors from a multiple listing service based on religion.
She said Huber’s “aggressive transphobic agenda” is really what’s at stake, not any one passage from Scripture. Gonzalez-Aller said that the local and national associations should have the right to distance themselves from behavior that tarnishes the reputation of the industry.
“In this bill, small government and deregulation go out the window when it doesn’t fit with a political agenda,” she said. “Trade organizations should have the ability to choose their members.”
Joey Dewey said he moved with his family to Montana more than a year ago. He’s a licensed real estate agent in Washington, but not in Montana. He has not gotten licensed in Montana because he said that he could not abide by the national association’s code of ethics. Instead, he spends time commuting where MLS activity in Washington is not blocked.
Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said that if the committee wanted to see hate speech, they should look no farther than her website after she started supporting Huber. She blamed the media and others for being on an agenda to silence Christianity.
Ticking off a long list of notable news issues from bakers and wedding cakes to requiring kids to attend drag shows, she urged her fellow Senators to stand up.
“They don’t want equality. They want to dominate our speech,” Manzella said.
Lance Kinzer, the policy director at the First Amendment Partnership, said usually the organization doesn’t weigh in on legislation that doesn’t involve the government, but in this case he said the rule has been applied in a shocking manner.
“They have weaponized the code (of ethics) for lawful private religious speech, not in the practice of real estate, but then restrict their activity beyond their work,” he said. “This is broad enough to apply to almost anything.”
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