Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill gets first hearing

Opponents argue it would allow bigotry, discrimination

By: - February 16, 2021 6:04 pm

(Photo illustration by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

Complications with Type 1 Diabetes have landed Quinn Leighton in the emergency room multiple times.

And if a new bill is passed that would allow people and businesses to deny services for reasons of faith, Leighton worries about being denied life-saving care in an emergency if a medical provider claims it is against their religious holdings to treat LGTBQ patients.

“Every time I see a new medical provider, I am concerned about how I’ll be treated as an LGBTQ person,” Leighton said. “And this bill as written, and as we understand the impacts, have me very concerned about what might happen if I needed emergency care.”

Senate Bill 215, carried by Kila Republican Sen. Carl Glimm, would allow people and businesses to deny people service on claims it burdens their religious expression.

The same bill failed on a tied House vote in 2015.

Representatives from more than a dozen civil rights organizations and other activists testified against the bill. Four people testified for it.

Proponents of the bill said it would protect Montanans’ ability to live in accordance with their religious beliefs. In contrast, opponents said it allows religion to be used as a way to skirt anti-discrimination laws.

Democratic Sen. Bryce Bennett from Missoula called the hearing heartbreaking.

“It’s a scary world for LGBTQ people here in Montana, and this bill seeks to make it a whole lot more scary,” he said. “This bill would allow people like me to be denied housing, to be kicked out of restaurants, to get denied health care, be fired from my job. Not because of something that I did, but simply because of who I am.”

Addressing Glimm, he said, “I want you to look me in the eyes and tell me why you deserve a life free of discrimination and people like me don’t.”

Rejecting Bennett’s assertions, Glimm said he doesn’t believe any of what Bennett said would happen under the bill.

“I don’t believe that this bill would allow that discrimination to happen,” Glimm said. “This bill is not a blanket license to discriminate.”

The bill, he said, does allow religion to be used in the court of law.

“But all the examples that you gave, I don’t think a single one of them would qualify under this bill,” Glimm said.

Claims the bill could lead to discrimination were also shrugged off by Jeff Laszloffy with the Montana Family Foundation.

“It’s conflating other issues, and it is not part of this bill … we need to stay focused on what this bill does and not all the boogeyman in the room,” he said.

Multiple LGBTQ activists testified against the bill and said even without it, they have been discriminated against. They argued this bill would only make it worse.

“Oftentimes, my wife and I are in situations where we don’t necessarily feel safe,” said Kelsen Young, director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said during testimony. “We have to wonder whether or not the plumber is going to have some religious reason not to fix our plumbing.”

She said she shouldn’t have to worry about whether the plumber will deny her service because she is gay. But under this bill, the plumber would have legal ground to do so.

Matt Sharp, who testified for the bill on behalf of the Alliance For Defending Freedom — a prominent conservative group that is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group — said the bill would provide safeguards against situations like a Muslim being forced to shave their beard, a nun having to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, a Jewish baker being forced to open on Saturday or a florist having to make a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding.

“SB215 does not determine winners or losers, nor does it mean that religion will always prevail. It simply protects the process for balancing the government’s interest with individual freedom,” Sharp said.

Proponents also said the bill mirrors the Federal Religious Freedom Act, but Montana’s American Civil Liberties Union argues it goes further.

“This language is more extreme than the (Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act) … It looks like it’s an attempt to place a thumb on the scales for religion, over state interests,” Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of Montana’s ACLU, said during testimony. “It invites claimants to assert religion as an excuse to discriminate against others and refuse to comply with laws, including criminal laws, rather than as a protection against government overreach.”

The bill does not even reflect the strict scrutiny test that applies under Montana’s Constitution, she said.

“When a state law or other governmental action imposes a substantial burden on the practice of religion, then the government must justify it by a compelling state interest,” Borgmann said.

Because Glimm’s bill does not include the word “substantial” before “burden,” Borgman said the bill “invites the idea that any religious objection to a requirement, such as an anti-discrimination law, is justified under this law.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .