Stefan Aldava reads from “My Shadow is Pink” while performing as Sofia Shadow during a drag story hour in the rotunda of the Montana State Capitol in Helena on Thursday, April 13, 2023. (Photography by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
The Montana Senate on Monday voted to “gut,” as the Senate carrier told the chamber, Columbia Falls Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell’s bill targeting drag performances.
The amended version of House Bill 359 removes all references to drag and clarifies in law that “adult-oriented” performances cannot be done at schools, places that receive state funding, or on public property where children are present. It also strikes the immediate effective date of the measure.
Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, offered the amendment on the Senate floor Monday evening, which was adopted in a 23-19 vote – with eight members excused. Thirteen Democrats and 10 Republicans voted in favor of the amendment.
Friedel said he’d had some reservations about supporting Mitchell’s bill, though he voted for an amended version to pass out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and had talked to attorneys about it as it approached the Senate floor. He said if his amendment were to be adopted, it would make the bill stronger and make it stand “the test of time” as it likely will be challenged in court.
“I can tell you right now, if that bill goes as [it currently is written], even the most conservative judge will strike it down for unconstitutionality,” Friedel told the chamber. “The reason I brought this amendment today is to make sure that we get this across the aisle. We get this in front of the governor, he signs it; it goes to court and it can be defended by the AG’s Office.”
Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, who is carrying the bill in the Senate, opposed the amendment, saying it “completely derails the intent of the legislation.”
“The same amendment has been passed in three other states and then they ended up killing the bill,” Glimm said. “The other thing this amendment does is it allows all these under art, and so it really just completely guts the bill.”
Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, said he worried that the amended bill would no longer ban drag story hours because he was not sure they appealed to the “prurient interest” that is necessary under the definition of an “adult-oriented performance.”
He also said he felt that banning drag story hours was the primary intent of the original version of the bill, which he said was being hurt by the amendment.
Friedel said the amended version now reflects the version of the bill passed in North Dakota, which was also a weakened version of the original measure.
“It did not get enjoined like the Tennessee bill did,” Friedel said.
The floor action came after dozens of people protested the bill at the state Capitol last week, hosting a drag performance in front of the building and a drag story hour inside.
After the amendment was adopted, there was no further discussion on the measure. Glimm still urged the body pass the bill, saying the changes could be considered by the House and perhaps in a committee between the two chambers.
“I guess I will encourage you to still vote [yes] and we’ll try and deal with this in a conference committee and try and straighten it out,” he said.
The bill passed second reading in a 34-16 vote after it was amended to include the new language. Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, was the lone Democratic vote in favor of the bill, while Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, was the only Republican to vote against it.
Should the bill pass its third reading in the Senate, which is likely to take place Tuesday, it would head to the House for consideration of the amended version. If the House votes not to adopt the Senate amendments, the two chambers would each appoint three members to a conference committee to try to come up with a version of which both chambers would approve.
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