Montana State tea party removes leader after anti-gay post

HELENA, Mont. (AP) § The president of a Montana tea party group has been kicked out of the organization for an exchange on his Facebook page that appeared to condone violence against homosexuals.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association's board of directors voted Sunday to remove Tim Ravndal from the group after members learned of the online conversation in July that began with a comment about an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over rights for same-sex couples.

Ravndal, who was elected to the position in August, apologized over the weekend after being contacted by The Great Falls Tribune, which first reported the story. That didn't halt the board's decision.

"We continually make it known that we will not tolerate bigoted dialogue, behavior or messages at our functions, our meetings or within our ranks," chairman Jim Walker said in a statement. "If a person demonstrates bigotry relative to sex, ethnicity, etc., they are not welcome in our organization. The Tea Party movement is about standing up for individual freedom for everyone."

The July 23 Facebook comment and subsequent exchange has been removed, but a screen-shot showed it originated with Ravndal posting that "Marriage is between a man and a woman period! By giving rights to those otherwise would be a violation of the Constitution and my own rights."

That post prompted a response from another Facebook user, who wrote: "I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions."

To that, Ravndal responded: "Where can I get that Wyoming printed instruction manual?"

The conversation appears to reference the 1998 death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and tied to a fence post. Police said Shepard was attacked because he was gay.

Montana Human Rights Network organizers said they became aware of the Facebook posting on Friday after a couple of Montana political blogs reprinted the exchange. Organizer Kim Abbott said her organization immediately called for Ravndal's removal and for the Big Sky Tea Party Association to clarify its position.

Two days later, Ravndal was gone.

"We think that they moved swiftly, they condemned the anti-gay rhetoric," Abbott told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We're especially happy about the unequivocal statements that the tea party will not welcome this type of inflammatory, bigoted behavior into their party, and we hope they stick to it."

Ravndal told KTVH-TV in Helena on Tuesday night that the Big Sky Tea Party Association "made the decision to throw me under the bus," and he repeated he did not know the Facebook conversation was referencing Shepard.

"I've gotta be honest, that was over 10 years ago ... the Matthew Shepard case," he said.

Ravndal also apologized on his Facebook page. "I made a mistake and commented on a post that implied that I condone violence against another human being," he wrote.

Roger Nummerdor, a board member and the group's president until July, said the board knew nothing about the comments until members read about it in the Tribune over the weekend. One board member spoke to Ravndal about allowing him to resign, but the board decided it had to take a stronger action, and swiftly.

"It just hit us right in the gut," Nummerdor said. "We don't want to be painted with the same brush as he painted himself."

The board was expected to elect a new president Tuesday night and hoped to begin to distance itself from Ravndal, who had been a member of the group since it was founded early last year.

"I think his being head of the tea party, it's going to definitely require us to repair some bridges," Nummerdor said. "How bad it is, I don't know."

Published: Thu, Sep 9, 2010