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Hamilton lawmaker’s comment on gays questioned; she says it’s out of context

State Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton (Mike Dennison/MTN News)

A Republican state senator’s comment that appeared to condone violence against gay couples in Montana should be clarified and, if necessary, retracted, her gay colleagues at the Legislature said Friday.

But Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, told MTN News that her statement at a Wednesday night rally in Clinton was reported out of context, and that she wasn’t condoning or encouraging violence against gay Montanans.

“I did not say anything about violence or hate,” she said.

Manzella was among several speakers Wednesday at a Clinton church, in support of a church pastor accused of “hate speech” because he withdrew the church this summer from a food-distribution program that included a flyer supporting gay rights.

The Missoulian reported that Manzella noted that gay couples have said they fear violence, if they walk down the street in Montana holding hands.

In a transcript provided by the Missoulian, Manzella said:

“Now, they (gay people) like to play the protected class card and they’re the minority and they’re discriminated against, and they’re scared to walk down the street hand in hand. I’ve got to tell you, I think those are normal consequences associated with the choices they made. We can’t prevent them from doing that.”

Manzella did not dispute the statement, but told MTN News she was referring to fears she’d heard expressed by a gay person, and that those fears are something they chose to have – not that they should expect a violent reaction.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, told MTN News Friday that if Manzella is not justifying violence against gays, she should retract the statement.

“I think it’s a very damn thin line between condoning violence or inciting violence, against people you don’t agree with,” Sands said.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, who also is gay, said she found Manzella’s comments “concerning and alarming,” and that she saw them as condoning violence against gays.

“She knows me and my family; she’s talking about my family,” Abbott said. “It’s unacceptable to be encouraging violence, as a public official.”

Bryce Bennett, a former state senator from Missoula, said Friday that gays shouldn’t have to accept that violence is a consequence “of just living your life.”

“I don’t think people like Theresa Manzella understand how hard it is to grow up as an LGBT person in a state like Montana, and the constant threats of violence, every day,” he said.

Bennett resigned his Senate seat this summer and now works in Washington, D.C., for a nonprofit voting-access group.

Manzella said the gist of her speech was about constitutional rights, and how the Constitution protects the beliefs of those who choose to live a “righteous” life.

She also told MTN News that she’s received many hateful comments and responses herself since Thursday, reacting to the reporting of her comments.

The Clinton pastor, Brandon Huber, is suing the Missoula Organization of Realtors, which is considering a complaint filed against him by a citizen for allegedly violating the realtors’ code of ethics against “hate speech.”

The complaint referenced Huber’s decision to withdraw the church from its cooperation with a food-distribution program this summer by the Missoula Food Bank, after lunches distributed to kids by the Food Bank contained a flyer supporting PRIDE and gay rights.

Huber said the church couldn’t participate any more, because the flyer conflicted with its teachings, and began distributing lunches itself to kids in the area. Clinton is about 15 miles east of Missoula.