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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 10, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 37
Tea Party scrambles over jokes about Matthew Shepard murder
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Tea Party scrambles over jokes about Matthew Shepard murder

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Big Sky Tea Party Association of Montana is on the brink of civil war after its president was tossed out of the group for posting an egregiously homophobic remark on a Facebook page.

Big Sky Tea Party President Tim Ravndal posted the comment on July 23, on a thread discussing an ACLU lawsuit demanding rights for same-sex couples.

On the thread, another commenter - Dennis Scranton, who Ravndal identified as a Tea Party activist from Miles City - wrote, "I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions."

Ravndal then asked where he could get the instruction manual.

"Hanging fruits" and "Wyoming" are obvious references to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, hung up on a rail fence, and left for dead by his killers.

Speaking to Great Falls Tribune reporters, Ravndal said that when he posted his comment, he had not made the connection to Shepard's murder. Once he understood, he claimed, he was shocked and deleted the thread.

"I wasn't even thinking about the tragedy that happened in Wyoming," Ravndal said. "I made a mistake and I apologize to anyone I offended. I do not condone violence to any human being."

He elaborated on his explanation in the Helena Independent Record on September 7.

"I hit the 'Remove' button so quick," Ravndal told Independent Record reporters. "I was sickened to look at it."

He described Shepard's murder as indescribable and tragic.

"I wish my apology could have been directed to the family of Matthew," he said.

Nevertheless, former Big Sky Tea Party president and current acting board chair Roger Nummerdor acted quickly to remove Ravendal once his comments came to light on September 3.

The Tea Party's board met on September 5, and voted 4-0 with one abstention to remove Ravndal from his leadership position and expel him from the party.

The group also issued a statement condemning "overt bigotry."

In a telephone interview with the Independent Record, Nummerdor said the comments were unfortunate, and that he hoped they don't reflect on the Big Sky Tea Party Association as a whole.

"We're hoping it doesn't reflect on us at all because we don't condone that type of comment," he said. "It's just not the way we think. We try to keep ourselves on task and only do a very limited mission statement. With those statements that Tim had made it kind of really put him out there in left field from us. We had to do something."

Nummerdor said the Matthew Shepard connection occurred to him as soon as he read about Wyoming and hanging fruits.

Jim Walker, chairman of the Big Sky Tea Party Association board, was out of town when the Ravndal story broke, but he quickly issued a media release condemning the Facebook post.

"We are extremely disappointed by Mr. Ravndal's commentary," Walker wrote. "The discussion in that Facebook conversation is entirely outside the position of the Big Sky Tea Party. Even though Mr. Ravndal was having a personal conversation and made no reference to our group, we felt strongly that swift and decisive action was required as we cannot accept that sort of behavior from within our membership, let alone from an officer of the corporation."

By September 7, however, Ravndal's supporters struck back.

Kristi Allen-Gailushas, secretary of the Big Sky Tea Party Association and Republican nominee for a Helena-area legislative seat, announced she was quitting the group.

"They didn't even listen to Tim and what he had to say," she said. "They were just worried about the [Montana] Human Rights Network and the ACLU and what they were going to say."

The Montana Human Rights Network advocates for LGBT rights and had called for Ravndal's removal.

Allen-Gailushas went even further, declaring "war" on Montana's LGBT community.

"The Gay community wants a war & they've got one!!" she wrote on her Facebook page.

Nummerdor said Allen-Gailushas had sent an e-mail to board members expressing her displeasure with Ravndal's expulsion. He declined comment on her Facebook posting, but said that the board would probably discuss it.

At a Big Sky Tea Party Association meeting on the night of September 7, some 30 party members blasted Nummerdor and Walker for stripping Ravndal of his position and membership without giving him a chance to defend himself, and for announcing the move to the press over the Labor Day weekend.

Board member Tom Baird said he never participated in the vote to remove Ravndal, and heard about it only after the fact.

He called the move "a knee-jerk reaction that cannot be reversed."

He then walked out of the meeting, saying he was resigning from the organization.

"My worry is that the association will turn tail and run in the opposite direction," he said.

Board member Bobette Madonna abstained from the vote on Ravndal, but agreed that Ravndal could have merely been reprimanded and removed from leadership. Expelling him from the party was too quick and harsh, she said.

"What happened to Tim is cruel, it's unnecessary," said Madonna. "They're making a fool of people who are responsible and decent."

Board member Bob Conner cast one of the votes for Ravndal's dismissal, but said he did so reluctantly and now favored reconsideration.

Several association members called for a new board, and several said they were quitting the group. Some questioned whether the group could survive.

In the end, Nummerdor said the board would meet to consider reinstating Ravndal's party membership, although he did not set a date for that meeting.

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