MATT GOURAS  |  Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. —Tea party leaders stung by turmoil over anti-gay rhetoric from their ranks acknowledge the publicity over the issue hurts the movement but hope the rancor will be short-lived.

The Big Sky Tea Party Association was splintered at the top when it canned its president after learning of his part in an online anti-gay discussion. Some backed the president, Tim Ravndal, forcing the board to revisit the sticky issue before deciding to stick with its decision to remove Ravndal from leadership while making it clear he remains a member of the group.

The episode marks the first public setback for a new movement that has attracted throngs of supporters angry over federal spending and other issues.

“I’m not sure that we know for sure what the impacts are going to be,” said Jim Walker, chairman of the Helena-area group. “I suspect there is going to be some negative impact within the tea party group here in Montana. I am not sure it will have adverse effects on the groups outside of Helena.”

Some members left the group after the decision, arguing it should back Ravndal, who was fired for comments he made in an online Facebook discussion that appeared to joke about the 1998 Wyoming beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. Ravndal claims he did not understand what his online friend was talking about.

The situation opened the group up to criticism that its leaders have intolerant, extremist views, especially given other online postings made recently by other Montana tea party activists.

Political observers said the tea party, a political movement still in its infancy and without much central organization, has to be careful delving into social issues. In Helena, the group is opposing a proposed sex education plan and other leaders have also said they oppose gay marriage.

“I think they are outside of the stated concerns of the tea party,” said political scientist Jim Lopach. “The tea party success has come from their ability to tap into some real concerns of the electorate, and those concerns do not deal with gay rights but they deal with the size of government and the function of government and the openness of government to citizen concerns.”

Lopach said the staunch opposition to gay rights does not mix well with the message of individual freedom that often resonates with Montana voters.

“It clouds the message. It raises ambivalence. It makes its message ambiguous, thereby it raises ambivalence in the public. They wonder ‘what are they really getting at?”’ Lopach said.

Democrats believe the Montana tea party is permanently damaged, and its leaders exposed as fringe elements not in the mainstream.

“The anti-gay, bigoted rhetoric coming from the tea party is a real turnoff to moderate, open-minded people,” said Montana Democratic Party spokesman Martin Kidston. “The tea party continues to show its true colors with each hate-filled rally and Facebook posting, and, as a result, the movement robbed itself long ago of any credibility.”

Ravndal’s comments aren’t the only high-profile gay bashing by those associated with the tea party.

Jason Priest, a Red Lodge Republican running for a state Senate seat, used Facebook to refer to an economist as a “a big homo,” among other vulgarities.

And gay rights issues play prominently for former Big Sky Tea Party Association secretary Kristi Allen-Gailushas, who resigned over the Ravndal issue. She used Facebook to declare: “The Gay community wants a war. They’ve got one!!”

But Lopach said the movement still has a strong core message that could be effective in motivating voters as an election nears. It’s unclear if the high-profile issues will hurt the movement.