A wide array of interest groups and state officials lined up to testify against a bill that purports to give Montanans more religious freedom, because they say it would only guarantee the freedom to discriminate.
Carl Glimm, a Republican Representative from Ashley Lake, is sponsoring a bill that, he says, would ensure that the government could not infringe on a person’s religious rights unless it had a “compelling interest” in doing so.
“This bill allows the courts to balance the legitimate interests of the state government against the legitimate interests of religious practitioners. And the bill does not require any particular outcome; merely it directs the court to properly balance conflicting interests."
“Compelling interest” is a standard that appears in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill passed by Congress in 1993. Glinn says the “compelling interest” test has been missing from Montana law since 1996, when the Supreme Court Ruled that the federal law does not apply to the states.
His bill drew support from the Montana Family Foundation’s President, Jeff Laszloffy, who urged lawmakers not to fall for what he called “horror stories” spread by opponents.
"It was lobbied for in 1990, it is current federal law, it’s law in 19 states, it’s about to become law in Indiana, and wild things are not going to happen in any of those states or at the federal government because they’re not happening now," Laszloffy said.
Nevertheless, many different activist groups are concerned the “religious freedom” that the bill aims to promote is really code language for the freedom to discriminate. Kim Leighton of the Pride Foundation says her group is worried that its passage could legitimize the treatment that some gay, lesbian, or transgender people already face across the state.
“LGBTQ Montanans already face a great deal of fear, mistreatment, violence, and I think that with passage of this, it would just go to further that fear and more harm could come to our community," Leighton testified.
Religious Freedom gained traction as a conservative issue five years ago, when health-care reform mandated coverage for contraceptives, and it picked up momentum when courts began overturning laws against same-sex marriage. However, opponents say that Montana’s constitutional guarantee of religious liberty is fine as it stands, and Glinn’s bill goes too far. Retired state Supreme Court judge James C. Nelson called the bill “breathtakingly broad” and claims it could lead to “anarchy”.
“And if push comes to shove," Nelson said, "the offended citizen under this law will be able to sue the state, the county, the city, the school district for damages, injunction, and attorney’s fees, for infringing his or her personal belief system."
That same concern was voiced by one of the witnesses in favor of the bill. Greg Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, a group founded by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He points out that Glinn’s bill would allow a person to sue over anything they saw as a “burden” to their exercise of religion, while the federal law requires a person to show a “substantial burden” on their religious freedom. Hamilton says his group can support the bill, only if it’s amended to include some standard of reasonableness.
“Is it reasonable for a business to refuse services based on a religious conviction, is it reasonable for the government to uphold generally applicable anti-discrimination laws? The answer to the second question is yes," Hamilton said.
In other words, a religious freedom law that applies a standard of “reasonableness” would not allow a business owner to refuse service to a customer on religious grounds. Representative Glinn did not say whether such an amendment would be acceptable to him. The House judiciary Committee will consider whether to send the bill to the full House, with or without amendments, in the coming days.