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HELENA (AP) — The Montana tea party association leader ousted over an anti-gay exchange on Facebook said Thursday that he wants his leadership post back, and denied that he understood an online friend was talking about killing gay people during their Internet discussion.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association fired Tim Ravndal on Sunday after learning of his online comments about same-sex couples made in July. The post spurred an exchange that appeared to joke about the 1998 beating death of a gay college student in Wyoming.

Ravndal denied Thursday he was understood a connection being made to Matthew Shepard's killing, and told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he wants his leadership post because he believes the group is headed in the right direction.

The association is backing a rally next week opposing Helena's proposed sex education program that includes teaching tolerance about gay love, an event Ravndal helped organize.

"If they want me to come back, I am more than welcome and willing to work with the association to set goals and move forward," Ravndal said. "If it is best for me to step aside from the tea party association, that's what I will do."

A board vote will likely place next week on reinstating Ravndal's membership, but one board member has said bringing Ravndal back as the group's president is out of the question.

Ravndal denounced violence toward gays that appears to be a big part of a disputed Facebook conversation that opens with Ravndal adamantly opposing gay marriage.

Online friend Dennis Scranton replied: "I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions."

Ravndal asked Dennis for the "Wyoming printed instruction manual."

Scranton told Ravndal to look in the Billings Gazette archives, a clearer reference to Shepard, who was beaten and tied to a fence and left to die in 1998.

Ravndal said Thursday that he first got worried at the "fruits" reference and understood it to be a derogatory reference toward gays. But he did not think Scranton was talking about hanging people, and instead believed that Scranton had a strategy for the political fight on gay marriage.

"I thought he was using his derogatory adjectives of the gay and lesbian community. A display could mean many things. Are we talking about poster signs, are we talking about a book?" Ravndal said. "I thought there was an actual printed manual about displaying the facts in this issue."

When he later came back to Facebook and saw the clearer reference to Shepard, Ravndal said he became worried.

"I said 'oh God, this is not right. this is terrible.' So I removed the post entirely," he said. "I ended it when I found out that's what I was talking about."

Ravndal on Thursday denounced Scranton as someone who has "some issues and deep-rooted issues."

Scranton did not return phone calls requesting comment.

The Montana Human Rights Network chastised Ravndal for now claiming that he didn't understood that hanging "fruits" was a reference toward violence.

"Mr. Ravndal is insulting the intelligence of Montanans that care about human dignity and safety. The comment from Dennis Scranton was clearly about hurting gay people," said spokeswoman Kim Abbott. "I think that people that care about the safety of all of their community members need to decide on whether they believe Mr. Ravndal when he says he doesn't know what that meant."

Ravndal said he thinks he could effectively lead the tea party, even though some have said they will resign if he comes back. He said he has been personally threatened on Facebook from those angered by the comments.

If reinstated, Ravndal will continue to take on social issues like the Helena sex education policy.

"Do I condone violence against the gay and lesbian community? I absolutely do not. Do I agree with them? No, I do not," he said. "Now, will I go out and make a direct attack on someone because they believe differently? No, I will not."

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