Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras speaks in support of Senate Bill 215, the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in front of the House Judiciary Committee on March 11, 2021. Credit: MPAN

HELENA — The administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte has publicly endorsed a bill in the Montana Legislature that is receiving intense debate among proponents of religious expression and advocates for LGBTQ civil rights. 

Senate Bill 215, the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls, would allow individuals and entities to claim exemption from laws and policies if those rules substantially burden the expression of their religious beliefs. Proponents, including the national conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom and the Montana Family Foundation, have said the bill will bolster religious liberties and increase the standard for how and when the government can interfere with a citizen’s expression of faith.

The bill narrowly passed out of the Senate before the transmittal deadline in early March. 

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Gianforte administration — a first since the legislation’s introduction — in part because of how she said it would limit government interference.

“[The legal test] simply requires the government, when it burdens anyone in exercising their religious beliefs, to show that they are furthering a compelling state governmental interest and that they are accomplishing that purpose as narrowly as possible,” Juras said. “Do we need this in Montana? Yes, we do.”

Juras also responded to arguments from opponents of the bill who have said it will open the door to legally protected discrimination, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit and queer Montanans in situations relating to employement, housing, medical care and public accomodations.

Adrian Jawort, speaking on behalf of Montana Native Vote, testifies in opposition to Senate Bill 215 in front of the House Judiciary Committee on March 11, 2021. Credit: MPAN

“Gov. Gianforte emphasizes this is not a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ,” she said. “They are hired as employees across the state. It is not a license for lodging facilities or private employers to discriminate.”

More than two dozen people spoke against the proposal on Thursday, compared to six proponents, in a hearing that stretched nearly three hours. The list of opponents included representatives from several tribal nations and Indigenous advocacy groups, the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Medical Association, many of whom echoed concerns about increased discrimination in critical situations.

“If an individual is in a car wreck and they arrive in an emergency room, regardless of who that person is, they deserve medical services, regardless of that person that’s going to care for them in that emergency room,” said Jean Branscum, CEO of the Montana Medical Association. “Those individuals should get those medical services. That’s the core position that we take in regards to that. That that standard of care should be delivered.”

Many other people spoke about instances of discrimination that LGBTQ people face across Montana and their concerns that the bill would only increase those experiences. While Montana does not include gender identity and sexual orientation as explicitly protected classes under the Montana Human Rights Act, several cities have passed non-discrimination ordinances that do extend such protections. Opponents argued that the legislation would conflict with those ordinances and green-light discrimination elsewhere, contributing to an overall sense of precarity for LGBTQ people.

“How many of you know what it’s like to have to have that terrible apprehension to wait for a literal act of Congress or a Supreme Court decision ruling just to see if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to you, just because of who you are and the way you’re born,” said Adrian Jawort, speaking on behalf of Montana Native Vote, one of many Indigenous groups and individuals who spoke against the bill. 

In further explaining the administration’s support for Glimm’s proposal, Juras said religious organizations are often unduly burdened by government intervention. Another proponent, president of the Montana Family Foundation Jeff Laszloffy, gave numerous examples of cases in which individuals and groups said their religious expression was restricted by school policies, campaign finance rules or government regulations. All of those situations, Laszloffy acknowledged, resulted in settlements or victories for the plaintiffs under existing law.

The hearing featured tense and charged exchanges between lawmakers and people offering public testimony, including one back-and-forth after an opponent said that some LGBTQ people are considering leaving the state because of a number of bills they see as hostile or discriminatory

“Just saw a little cheer go up from a committee member,” tweeted SK Rossi, the lobbyist for the cities of Bozeman and Missoula, after the opponent’s comments. Rossi later identified the lawmaker as Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, who allegedly made the expression to Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Glendive. Neither Hinkle nor Phalen responded to a request for comment.

Soon after the opponent’s testimony ended, Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, spoke to his fellow committee members and requested more respect for citizens offering public testimony.

“I would just like to say that if I can give my representatives in the committee respect in listening to our people, I would hope that we just couldn’t sit here and snicker while people are making testimony,” Hawk said. He later confirmed in a phone interview that he was speaking in response to behavior by Hinkle and Phalen.

“It was almost like it was a joke to them,” Hawk said. “I sit there and I listen to everybody and give them the respect, and I hope that we could [do the same] for people giving public testimony.”

The committee did not vote on the bill on Thursday.

This story was updated on March 11, 2021 to correct the district that Rep. Donavon Hawk represents.

LATEST STORIES

Lawsuits pile up as inquiry into fatal Amtrak wreck continues

Three weeks after Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed along a remote stretch of track on Montana’s Hi-Line, killing three and injuring scores more, a dozen lawsuits have been filed by passengers injured in the deadliest railroad accident in the United States since 2017. But those lawsuits might run into trouble because of a never-before-tested clause recently…

Building on soil in Big Sandy

In Big Sandy, farmers are adding value to their operations by investing in soil health, reinvigorating both their farms and the rural communities that depend on them.

Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.