HELENA — The Montana House on a tie vote Friday rejected a proposed ballot measure that would have allowed people to cite their religious beliefs to justify disobeying certain laws or actions by the government.
Under House Bill 615 by Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, Montana would have had to demonstrate it had a higher state interest to enforce certain laws that might impair someone’s religious freedom acts.
“This bill is about discrimination of people like me,” said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, who is gay. “This is a bill about inspiring fear. ... This bill is discriminatory and dangerous.”
If the bill became law, Bennett said he could be refused service at a restaurant, could be fired from his job because he put a photo of his partner on his desk, or could be kicked out of his house because he was living with his partner. It would allow a restaurant owner, an employer or landlord to legally discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, citing their religious beliefs.
Glimm said his bill wasn’t about discrimination.
“This bill puts an exclamation point on our Montana right to freedom of religion,” he said.
HB 615 would recognize the free exercise of religion as a fundamental right and restore the use of the "compelling government interest" test in legal cases here regarding the free exercise of religion.
Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, disagreed, saying, “All this bill does is to promote the freedom to discriminate.”
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She said the governor of Indiana this week signed into law a similar “religious freedom” bill there, and it immediately spurred two groups to cancel large conventions there.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill last year because major sponsors would have boycotted the Super Bowl, Hill said.
House Minority Leader Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, said what the bill does is “reinstates a higher legal standard in religious freedom cases.”
Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, D-Billings, a pastor and Crow tribal member, said the bill would give license to people who belong to hate groups in Montana to discriminate against Native Americans and others.
“You would be sanctioning so much cruelty and so much destruction,” she said.
Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said the bill is intended to protect people who exercise their religious rights from government overreach.
In other action Friday, the House:
- Endorsed a proposed anti-abortion, personhood constitutional amendment that says life begins at the moment of conception. HB 425, by Rep. Matthew Monforton, R-Bozeman, passed 54-46 and faces a final House vote. If the same margin holds, the bill likely is dead. It takes 100 of the 150 legislators to vote for a proposed constitutional amendment for it to appear on the ballot. If the final House vote is the same, he would need 46 of the 50 senators to vote for it, which is unlikely since most if not all of the 21 Democratic senators support abortion rights.
- Rejected a proposed referendum by Monforton that would have said the right to bear arms may not be restricted unless there is a compelling state interest. His HB 598 failed 44-56.
- Backed a bill by House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, to establish public charter schools. The vote on HB 596 was 53-47, and it faces another House vote before moving to the Senate.
- Supported a bill by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, to use some Montana Lottery proceeds to create scholarships for students studying science, technology, engineering, math and health care in state post-secondary colleges and universities.