RFRA bill passes second House reading

The bill has faced sharp criticism from LGBTQ activists

By: - March 31, 2021 8:29 pm

House minority leader, Kim Abbott speaks outside of the Capitol building in Helena during Monday’s LGBTQ rally. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan)

Montana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed an essential hurdle in the House on Wednesday, and with one more vote, it will be sent to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte. The governor has signaled support for the controversial bill.

Senate Bill 215 passed 61-39. An amendment to ensure the bill would not be used as a defense for discrimination as laid out in the Montana Human Rights Act and local non-discrimination ordinances failed 47-53.

Opponents consistently warned the legislation would be used to skirt anti-discrimination laws and send a damaging message to businesses and tourists looking to come to the state if signed into law.

But supporters said it is necessary to protect Montanans’ right to free exercise of religion and codify state law with the National Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, carried the bill on the House floor and recognized the bill’s controversy, but he urged legislators to stay focused on its strict language.

“What this does is it prevents a government entity from coming in and denying somebody their deeply held religious belief … it also provides a claim or defense to a person whose deeply held religious beliefs have been substantially burdened,” he said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena said the legislation sends the wrong message. “Legislation like this signals things really harmful to my community. Whether it’s driving up to a hotel at night and deciding whether Tara and I both go in, or just one of us, or do we keep driving because of humiliation or something worse.”

To help protect from discrimination, Abbott proposed the amendment that would have explicitly prohibited it: “[The amendment] protects nondiscrimination ordinances and the Montana Human Rights Act and just says that this isn’t about discrimination; I hope that we can support it.”

Multiple Republicans spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it takes the teeth out of the bill.

“This amendment is trying to go through the back door to gut what the bill is trying to do, to recognize that we are all God’s children and deserve a government that protects that statement,” Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish said.

More than 300 Montana businesses earlier signed a letter opposing the bill, calling it discriminatory.

“These businesses understand the bill makes it difficult to recruit top talent and doesn’t help attract the future workforce to our colleges and universities, and it doesn’t help our reputation as a business-friendly, innovative and forward-thinking state,” said Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert 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. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.