BILLINGS — A Montana Supreme Court candidate’s email conversation about religious freedom lawsuits has sparked concern among anti-discrimination advocates.
Candidate Kristen Juras told a University of Montana colleague in an email last December that she looked forward to deciding religious freedom cases coming before the state Supreme Court in coming years. The email conversation, on her UM email account, worries groups concerned about right-of-refusal lawsuits filed in the name of religious freedom.
“The fact that she has named this as one of her top issues and motivation for serving on the court is alarming,” said Caitlin Borgmann of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. The ACLU doesn't take sides in elections. It does work on civil liberties.
At issue is the Dec. 8 email conversation between Juras and psychology professor Lucian Conway III. Juras is an adjunct law professor at the University of Montana, where Conway also teaches.
“After lots of prayer I decided to run for an open seat on the Montana Supreme Court,” Juras said in her email. “I think there are going to be a lot of cases affecting religious freedom that arise over the next several years, and I’d like to be part of the decision-making body that will be addressing those issues. What I covet is prayer. Please pray that during my campaign I would always act in a way that honors God, for His favor, for opportunities, for wisdom in my campaign strategies.”
The remark alarmed Billings attorney John Heenan, who says Juras lacks the experience and the impartiality to be a judge. Heenan obtained the emails from Juras’s university computer by filing a public information request.
“It’s like when you’re a baseball player and the umpire says, ‘I can’t wait for the Yankees to come to town so I can ump that game,’” Heenan said. “From our side, all you want is a fair judge. And I don’t believe Kristen Juras makes comments that indicate that all she wants to do is call balls and strikes. She wants to ump for certain teams, and that’s a problem for attorneys.”
Juras told The Gazette she is interested in several subjects she expects to come before the state Supreme Court, not just religious freedom. Asked about where she thought these religious cases would originate, Juras said she expected the Legislature would be taking up the issue.
“I’m running for the Montana Supreme Court for several reasons," she said. "I am running because for years I believed the court would benefit from the experience of an attorney such as myself with more than 30 years of experience representing farmers and small business owners."
But Juras is playing the religion card on the campaign trail. In a May article in the Montana Christian Journal, Juras said “it is important to elect justices who respect all of our fundamental rights, including the free exercise of religion, and who have not pre-determined that one right should outweigh another.”
Juras said she was raised Catholic. She attends the Crossroads Memorial Church in Great Falls, a Southern Baptist church located in the community where she lives. On the church's website, where it states its beliefs, it says this about government: "We believe in the separation of church and state, but not in separation of God and government."
There has been a steady stream of religious freedom bills proposed by state governments that do give more weight to religious freedoms, empowering businesses, landlords and government workers to deny service to people based on religious beliefs. Montana’s attempt at such a bill failed in 2015 but likely wasn’t the last, observers say.
Those religious bills clash with the movement for the nondiscrimination ordinances, like ones passed in Bozeman, Butte and Missoula that prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for any reason. A nondiscrimination ordinance proposal failed in Billings last year.
Bozeman’s ordinance has been targeted by one lawsuit, which failed. Borgmann and others working on nondiscrimination expect more challenges will come.
One of the most vocal opponents to nondiscrimination ordinances is the conservative Montana Family Foundation, based in Laurel. The group’s executive, Jeff Laszloffy, said it’s Juras’s opponent, Great Falls District Judge Dirk Sandefur, who has a religion problem. Sandefur is biased against religion, Laszloffy said.
"When the founders wanted to protect American freedoms, the very first one they listed was the free exercise of religion — the right to live your life according to your beliefs,” Laszloffy said. “But unlike Judge Sandefur, Kristen Juras did not call people of faith 'bigots and haters.' We're glad there are candidates who want debate and informed conclusions rather than to dismiss one side of the case before it even reaches the court."