Bill expanding religious freedom defense passes committee

Opponents say the bill would lead to more discrimination

By: - February 18, 2021 1:47 pm

The rotunda of the state capitol of Montana. The building was originally completed in 1899 with an addition in 1911. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

A bill that would strengthen Montanans’ ability to deny services if it substantially burdens their religious beliefs passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday on a 7-4 party-line vote with Republican support.

Senate Bill 215 was amended to include the word “substantially” before “burden.” During testimony, opponents noted the modifier is necessary to trigger the strict scrutiny test — the process used by courts to determine a law’s constitutionality.

Supporters and opponents of the bill differ on its necessity. Those who have spoken out against it say it will allow religion to be used as a tool for discrimination. But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, and other proponents say it is necessary to protect Montanans’ right to live in accordance with their religion.

During debate on the bill Thursday, Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said the bill would undo all the work in the state to protect LGBTQ communities from discrimination.

“This [bill] is about dissolving every last bit of protection that we’ve had in the state. It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if I can continue living in a state like Montana,” he said.

The bill also would undo the delicate balance that has been struck in the country between people’s freedom of religion and their constitutional rights, said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.

“This undoes that balance and is going to allow individuals’ religious beliefs to be put ahead of the common good and other people’s constitutional rights,” she said.

Inversely, Billings Republican Sen. Chris Friedel argued the bill would protect from religious discrimination people like the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple on religious grounds.

As a descendant of those who escaped Germany when it was under Nazi rule, he said religious persecution is an important topic to him.

“I appreciate the good senator (Bennett) and how he feels,” Friedel said. “But I can tell you the opposite is true when they use the hammer of government to persecute me based on my religious views.”


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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 .