HELENA - A Montana tea party association's board will reconsider kicking its president out of the group for an anti-gay exchange on Facebook after several members resigned over his dismissal, a board member said Wednesday.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association board of directors will vote on reinstating Tim Ravndal's membership, most likely Monday, after a rancorous meeting on Tuesday night in which several people defended Ravndal, according to board member and former association president Roger Nummerdor.

But bringing Ravndal back into the fold could mean even worse consequences for the group's unity, Nummerdor warned.

"I feel strongly that the comments he made were very detrimental not only to the local tea party but other tea party organizations in Montana and across the nation," Nummerdor said. "I actually believe that if he was reinstated we would lose a lot more members than if we keep him away from the organization."

Ravndal was kicked out of the Helena-based group on Sunday after the board learned of the Facebook exchange that appeared to joke about the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in 1998.

Ravndal has apologized and said he did not make the connection between the Facebook exchange and Shepard's death. Ravndal did not return calls and e-mails for comment on Wednesday.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association's board of directors decided to vote again after the meeting on Tuesday night in which a number of Ravndal supporters defended the former president, and one board member resigned, along with the group's secretary and several rank-and-file members.

Many people who showed up Tuesday don't normally attend the association's meetings, and most in the group don't condone the comments Ravndal made, Nummerdor said.

"If he stays a member, I will have to step down from the organization," Nummerdor said.

State Democratic leaders observing the division are hopeful they can capitalize in legislative and statewide races this fall by attracting voters who are turned off by Ravndal's comments and the subsequent intraparty strife.

Even though the conservative tea party movement does not claim Republican affiliation, Democratic spokesman Martin Kidston said it's a blurry line and is often hard to separate the GOP from the tea party groups.

"They may be a flash in the pan," Kidston said. "Everybody's out to balance the budget, create jobs - the tea party doesn't have the corner on that."

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