In the face of rising racial tensions during a summer of high-profile police encounters, the National Association of Realtors made a bold move in 2020 by strengthening its professional standards to address hate speech.
The new standard has been tested several times over the past year, with the latest case interpretation requiring Realtors to remove Confederate flags from listing photos.
However, Montana Realtor Brandon Huber, who is also a pastor, could be offering the greatest test yet, as he’s locked in a legal battle with the Missoula Organization of Realtors over where free speech ends and hate speech begins.
In June, Huber pulled his church’s support of the Missoula Food Bank due to the organization’s decision to include an LGBTQ+ Pride Month insert with the free lunches it distributed to local families. The insert, Huber claimed, went against his beliefs as a Christian and the biblical principles he teaches his congregants.
“Clinton Community Church wants our community to know that we love and support each and every one of you, no matter your background or where you are in life,” he said in a letter to his congregation. “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.”
In the letter, Huber also announced the launch of the Clinton Community Church pantry, which served more than 680 free lunches in July and August. However, the pantry’s operations came to an abrupt stop when an anonymous Clinton resident filed a discrimination claim with the Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR).
The complainant cited the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics standard that prohibits Realtors from “using harassing speech, hate speech, epithets or slurs based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” and said “[Huber] cannot separate his religious bias from his entire person and will continue to be inherently biased against the LGBTQIAS+ community in any and all circumstances.”
The hate speech provision, which was officially enacted in November 2020, applies to all of a Realtor’s activities, not just those that relate to real estate. In May, NAR approved four case interpretations to clarify the policy, including one that specifies that religion can not be used as an excuse for disparaging or discriminatory behavior.
While MOR began the review process, Huber and his attorney, Matthew Monforton, filed a lawsuit with the Missoula District Court that claimed NAR’s hate speech policy was too vague to be enforced.
“As your listeners may know, the National Association of Realtors recently enacted a hate speech provision that applies to all Realtors, and it applies 24/7, not just when they’re doing the job,” Monforton told local radio station KBUL ahead of a rally for Huber on Nov. 17 dubbed the “Let’s Go Brandon Rally.” “The ‘hate speech’ was a letter that Pastor Brandon distributed to his congregation explaining his actions.”
He continued, “[Brandon] basically said, ‘Look, we’ve been partners with the Missoula Food Bank. They want to distribute this, this LGBTQ pride flyer. It goes against our biblical doctrine, and so we’re going to do free lunches on our own.’ That’s it. It was the most polite, innocuous letter that you could possibly imagine.”
“Is the Bible hate speech?” Monforton added. “Because that’s what the Missoula Realtors are alleging.”
At the rally organized to support Huber, the pastor echoed Monforton’s statement and said his church’s food pantry never turned away “gay children” who needed free lunches — a point he believes undercuts the MOR’s ability to advance the claim to a hearing panel.
“It wasn’t because the church refused them. The only question that we asked was ‘How many (lunches) would you like?’” he added. “We never asked if your child was gay; we never asked their familial status. So where all this is coming from? I have no clue.”
In an emailed statement to Inman, MOR CEO Jim Bachand reiterated the organization’s commitment to upholding the NAR Code of Ethics and properly investigating the claims against Huber. However, Bachand explained, Huber’s claim with the Missoula District Court needs to be resolved before MOR can proceed.
“Discriminatory conduct, including hate speech, is directly contrary to who Realtors are and should not be tolerated in any profession,” he said. “As a local association of the National Association of Realtors, we take our role very seriously in upholding a rule such as this to ensure discrimination has no place among our Realtors.”
“Both NAR and the Missoula Organization of Realtors are confident this practice will withstand judicial scrutiny,” he added in reference to Huber’s counterclaim. “When handling ethics complaints, MOR carefully reviews all matters and follows due process to ensure fairness to all involved parties.”
Bachand also clarified the review process, saying a MOR hearing panel is responsible for the final decision and determining if Huber must pay a $5,000 fine along with losing his Realtor membership. “It will be up to the MOR hearing panel to determine whether any of the matters raised in the complaint constitute a violation based on the evidence presented,” he said.
A NAR spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about the complaint, such as what kind of precedent Huber’s fate — whether it’s in his favor or not — could set for other associations who will undoubtedly have to wade through the murky waters between free speech and hate speech.
“NAR has a deep commitment to non-discrimination, and we take any alleged violation of the Code of Ethics very seriously,” the spokesperson said. “Article 10 in the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice of the National Association of Realtors, and specifically Standard of Practice 10-5, is designed to achieve this commitment.”
Meanwhile, Windermere Missoula Managing Broker John Bauer said his team is waiting on the results of the claims to determine if Huber should be fired. “In fairness to all parties concerned, we have been advised to take no actions or make any statements regarding the case until a decision has been rendered,” he said.
According to Huber’s attorney, Bauer will likely have plenty of time to think about his options, as the lawsuit is in the “preliminary stages” and will take a currently unknown amount of time to move through the court system.
“[Brandon Huber] will accept nothing less than the complete termination of those proceedings,” Monforton said.
LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance CEO Ryan Weyandt said his organization is committed to supporting the LGBTQ+ communities in Clinton and Missoula — no matter how long the proceedings take.
“While the LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance greatly appreciates the ongoing support from NAR, numerous state, regional and local Realtor associations and the industry’s increasing work to welcome diversity, equity and inclusion, moments like these demand action,” he said in a statement. “The LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance has an obligation to ensure that our community is protected from any forms of discrimination committed within the housing industry.”
In a follow-up call with Inman, Weyandt said he respects Huber’s rights as a pastor; however, they don’t give him the license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, who often struggle with housing discrimination.
“We’re not taking a stance on his role as a pastor, and I respect Mr. Huber’s right to pursue any career outside of being a Realtor,” he said. “But the reality of it is that folks can be racist, folks can be misogynistic, folks can be bigoted and harbor hatred against different communities, and that invalidates their right to be Realtors.”
“They can still sell real estate if they want, as real estate agents not licensed by NAR,” he added. “But as soon as you cross those boundaries, as soon as you violate the Code of Ethics, you’re invalidating your membership to the National Association of Realtors, and just like any other private organization that issues membership, ultimately, their internal governing rules should be the deciding factor.”
Read Huber’s counterclaim below: