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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Shared State Episode 03: Grateful To God

Delegates included a nod to religion when they wrote Montana’s constitutional preamble. Decades later, ideas about God, faith and morality continue to influence how lawmakers approach policy issues. Specifically: access to abortion and civil rights for LGBTQ people.

This year, Montana’s Republican and Democratic candidates for governor are approaching these topics with completely different perspectives and religious philosophies. Depending on the outcome of that race, parts of Montana’s political reality could change dramatically.

From the newsrooms of Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio and Montana Free Press, this is Shared State, a podcast about what’s driving Montana’s 2020 elections, and where the outcomes could lead us.

Sarah Aronson When it comes to political labels, Montana can be hard to categorize. We have a history of split government: Republican-held legislatures, Democratic governors, mixed congressional delegations.

Sometimes that means there's a high tolerance for bipartisanship, people working together across the political spectrum.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "We'll now open a hearing on House Bill 500. Representative ..."

Aronson But not always.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "Before we get going with testimony, I'm going to warn those who are here to testify to be respectful."

Aronson In state politics, there are strong, conflicting opinions on the right and the left. And if you're wondering what that can mean for policy, just listen to some of the testimony from last year's legislative session.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "You can have your own sets of truths, but this is mine and many other Montanan's."

Aronson This is a committee hearing about a specific bill, the Montana Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. It was introduced by Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "In House Bill 500, we are asking that the state of Montana prohibit the abortion of an unborn child that is capable of feeling pain."

Aronson The bill would have put strict limits on abortions after 20 weeks, and, in some cases, make it a felony to perform them. But when it came time for public testimony, a lot of the proponents weren't talking about science or medical arguments.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "There is much scripture that could have been relied upon - and should have been relied upon - to indicate that yes, a fetus is a child."

"… serve as the executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, and I speak today on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of Montana. And I'm here today to voice our strong support ..."

Aronson There are also plenty of people who testified against the bill.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "While women should not have to justify their personal medical decisions, the reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is rare and often happens under complex circumstances. The kind of situations where a woman..."

Aronson House Bill 500 made it out of committee. Eventually, both the House and Senate passed it too, mostly along party lines. But that bill never became law because Gov. Bullock vetoed it.

When it comes to abortion, this is how it's gone in Montana for over a decade. Whenever a bill is up for debate, there's a flood of passionate testimony. If it passes the Republican controlled legislature, it gets vetoed by the Democratic governor.

The same thing often happens with another group of bills, too: the ones about civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. In both cases, certain ideas about God and faith and morality play a major role.

In this way, the state has been stuck in a kind of limbo. Lawmakers haven't really expanded - or restricted - abortion access or LGBTQ rights. But depending on what happens in November, the state's balancing act could tip over.

The makeup of the legislature probably isn't going to shift, but the candidates running for governor? They see these issues very differently.

This is Shared State, a podcast about Montana's 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us. I'm your host Sarah Aronson.

Today's episode starts with the second line of our preamble, "grateful to God." We're looking at how religion is influencing policy in Montana, and why that matters for the governor's race.

[Narrator] We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

Aronson Reporter Mara Silvers has our story.

Mara Silvers House Bill 500 wasn't the only bill about reproductive rights introduced last year. Another one would have let voters change the state constitution to say that life begins at conception, effectively making all abortion illegal.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "This bill once again provides the Montana legislature and the citizens of Montana the opportunity to repent."

Silvers There's also a history of controversial proposals about LGBTQ people. A few years ago, one bill would have made transgender Montanans use locker rooms and public bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificate instead of their gender identity.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "It's just common sense that girls and boys shouldn't be showering together in school."

Silvers Studies have found that kind of policy increases the risk of suicide for trans people.

The ideas behind these bills, which tend to be supported by conservative Christian groups and lawmakers, they don't necessarily match up with how most Montanans feel about religion and social issues.

Adults in the state are mostly Christian. About 65% identify as Protestant or Catholic. That's according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. About 30% are unaffiliated with any religion at all.

But in the same poll, more than half of Montanans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Even more, over 60% said homosexuality should be accepted.

Sometimes it feels like the bills about these issues exist in another world. They burst onto the political scene every two years, when lawmakers come to Helena. If they make it through the legislative process, there's still most likely a veto waiting on the other side.

It's been that way for over a decade, while Montana has had Democratic governors. So there's a disconnect between what happens in committee or on the House floor, and what actually ends up turning into law.

This year, the governor's seat is up for grabs, and when it comes to religious expression and gay rights and abortion, Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney seem to be as far apart as Montana is wide.

I talked to Mike Cooney at his campaign headquarters in Helena. We tried to be spaced out in a big room, which is why it's kind of echoey. I asked him to explain what faith was like in his household growing up.

Mike Cooney I had my was actually kind of an interesting scenario. My parents were of different religious backgrounds.

My mother was a Methodist, my father was a Catholic. You know, every Sunday, my mom would get up and go to church at the Methodist Church, and my father would take my brother or sister and I and we would head off to the Catholic Church, and that's what how we were raised, basically.

Silvers What do you remember about how your parents talked about how faith intersected with social issues, particularly around marriage and abortion?

Cooney Yeah. You know, when I was growing up, that really wasn't discussed much. A lot of those issues were, you know, I'm sure they were there, but they weren't really in the public eye as I remember.

So I don't remember a whole lot of discussions, but once I engaged in politics, then, of course, it became, you know, those issues became more and more important.

Silvers Cooney was first elected to the state House in 1977, four years after the Supreme Court decided Roe vs Wade.

Cooney When I first went to the Legislature, choice was always...that was a big issue back then. I just always thought that, "We're talking choice."

Somebody can make a decision if they want to have an abortion. They can make the decision to have a safe, you know, a medically safe abortion, and that's a good health decision, I mean, but if they choose not to do that, they choose not to do that.

Silvers Cooney continued on in government, and the tension around this topic didn't go away. The country kept debating other social issues, too. In particular, gay marriage and legal protections for LGBTQ people.

Cooney Back in 2008 when I was in the Legislature, there was an incident that did occur that got some publicity, and I wrote an op ed.

Silvers So what happened?

Cooney Well, you know it was a situation where a person was employed, some statements were made that she was uncomfortable with and she informed the people that she was gay. And it caused her great problems.

Silvers I got in touch with the woman who's referenced in Cooney's piece. She said she lost her job after coming out to her coworkers. She worked at Kmart at the time. Then, Cooney was president of the Senate, and in this piece he wrote, he called on legislators to strengthen anti-discrimination measures.

Cooney People should not have to worry about their employment. They should not have to worry about whether or not they can have housing, whether or not they can have access to health care, because of who they love.

It was so unfair, and it did not really speak to who we are as Montanans.

Silvers Cooney made a few statements like this, about fairness and who we are as Montanans. He still identifies as a Christian, although his campaign wouldn't say whether he is currently part of a specific congregation. But when it comes to evaluating policy, Cooney says he's not doing it through a religious lens.

Cooney I mean I've always approached those issues, I think, not so much from a from a spiritual standpoint, but, you know, it's a Montanan-values sort of standpoint and meaning that, you know, we're independent people and Montanans want to be able to live their lives the way they want to live their lives. And that should apply to everybody.

Silvers I'm curious: When you're talking about Montana values - there are many, many people I'm sure you've met them, and I have heard from them to, who would say that Montana values is also about being able to express their religious beliefs. What do you say to those people?

Cooney Well, you know, there's the old golden rule, you know, treat people as you wish to be treated. You know, I mean, I agree: people have the right to express their religious beliefs and so forth. But when that leads you to a point where you were discriminating against other human beings, and you're treating them unfairly or differently than you would any other person, I think that is a problem. And I don't find that to be a value that I would share.

Silvers Talking about values like this, it's easy for the political implications to feel vague. But Cooney has a pretty clear track record on reproductive and gay rights.

When he was in the Senate, he voted against a bill that would have made most minors get their parent's permission for abortions. He also voted against changing the state constitution to include anti-abortion language. He's spoken at pride events and, this year, was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country's strongest advocacy groups for LGBTQ people.

Despite this history, Cooney isn't making gay rights or abortion access central parts of his campaign - they're not exactly unifying issues during a general election. The same thing goes for Cooney's opponent, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte. His stances on reproductive rights and religious expression aren't showing up in his TV ads, but they are a big part of his personal and political record.

My colleague Eric Dietrich and I met Gianforte at his family's house in Bozeman. We talked in his backyard on a patio right next to the East Gallatin River. Gianforte is a Christian and has always said faith plays a big role in his life.

Silvers So I wanted to start by just asking a little bit about your religious background and how you came to the faith that you have today.

Greg Gianforte Yeah, so, I mean, faith is a very personal thing. It's has a lot of influence in my life. I was raised in the Presbyterian church. And it's been something that's strengthened our marriage. It's been a guiding light for us in raising our kids, as I think it does for an awful lot of Montana families.

Silvers Gianforte doesn't often talk about his faith publicly. Like he said, he sees that as a personal matter. But I wanted to ask him about a few specific ways his beliefs influence his politics, starting with Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, where he's a member.

So tell me a little bit about your history with that congregation.

Gianforte Grace Bible is our home church.

Silvers Since like?

Gianforte Since we moved here, 25 years ago.

Silvers I hadn't heard of Grace Bible, so I looked it up before this interview. The church's constitution is posted on its website, and in one section, it says marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Homosexuality and bisexuality are listed as a form of sexual immorality. That's a category that also includes bestiality and incest.

And I wondered if those are principles that you agree with.

Gianforte Well, we're all sinners. That's...I accept that as truth. And I do personally believe marriage is between one man and one woman. That being said, our Supreme Court has ruled that homosexuality marriage is legal in this country, and I accept the decision that they made.

Silvers His church isn't the only window into Gianforte's faith and conservative values. There's also a long money trail between his family and all kinds of organizations. They set up the Gianforte Family Foundation for just that purpose, ever since he and his wife started making their fortune from their tech company. The tax forms are all public information and posted online.

The family has given a lot of money toward arts and education programs, scholarships, charities. They've also given millions to groups that oppose LGBTQ rights and abortion. Here's the breakdown:

From 2008 to 2018, Gianforte's foundation gave over $1 million to crisis pregnancy centers in Montana. They offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but not abortions. There are thousands of these clinics across the country, some of which receive state funding. NBC did a report about them last year.

[NBC report] "They are ultimately advocating for one thing."

"What is the mission of Women's Choice Network?"

"We're here to empower abortion-vulnerable people to choose life."

"The American..."

Silvers These clinics have been criticized - and even sued - for misleading women in an effort to stop them from terminating their pregnancies.

Why choose to give to those organizations?

Gianforte One of the key premises of our foundation is to help the most vulnerable, and I believe life is precious and it should be protected, and we believe that as a family. You know, I think the underlying question here for you is, I am pro-life. We believe life is precious and there's nobody more vulnerable than a baby in the womb.

Silvers The Gianfortes have also donated millions of dollars to prominent Christian groups that run national ministries and advocate for conservative public policy, like Focus on the Family. Lately, that group has been promoting an anti-abortion rally called Alive 2020.

[ad] "Alive 2020 is an unforgettable celebration of humanity, featuring a massive display of a live 4D ultrasound that reveals with remarkable clarity what some are desperately trying to conceal."

"This is a baby!"

Silvers The Gianfortes have given Focus on the Family more than $700,000. Another $120,000 has gone to the Family Research Council, which vocally opposes LGBTQ rights. More than $250,000 has gone to the Alliance Defending Freedom. That's the group that represented Harris Funeral Homes after they fired an employee for being transgender. They lost after the landmark discrimination case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

I asked Gianforte why he and his family decided to support these groups.

Would you say that your personal values as a gubernatorial candidate align with the values of those organizations?

Gianforte " So, I believe discrimination is wrong, and as your next governor, I'll work to provide opportunities for all Montanans while they express their First Amendment rights."

Silvers This is a version of what Gianforte has said about LGBTQ rights for years, that he thinks discrimination is wrong, but that everyone has the right to express religious beliefs under the First Amendment.

[2014 Gianforte interview] "I don't think it's right that minority groups forced others to participate in their worldview, however."

Silvers This is from a phone interview in 2014, a few years after Gianforte sold his tech company for more than $1 billion. He talked to a reporter with the Great Falls Tribune, John S. Adams, who's now the editor in chief of Montana Free Press.

[2014 Gianforte interview] "You know, we have many gays that work for us at RightNow Technologies, and I think employers should hire the best people for a given position.

"I also believe our Constitution gives us the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. And I don't think that churches and religious organizations should be forced to adopt the views of others."

Silvers Then he gave another example.

[2014 Gianforte interview] "And in particular, I don't think men should be allowed to go into women's bathrooms because it is a public safety issue."

Silvers When Gianforte says men here, he's talking about transgender women.

[2014 Gianforte interview] "And at that point, you're taking the views of a minority and forcing them on a majority to say that all women and young girls have to allow men into their locker rooms and bathrooms. And that's just not right."

I think attendance in bathrooms should be based on physical anatomy, not what someone decided when they got up in the morning.

Silvers This is a well-established line of attack against trans people using public bathrooms. Their gender is often misrepresented, and they're framed as predators. I asked Gianforte if his views had changed since he gave this interview.

Gianforte I don't think women want men in their bathrooms, and I don't think that's changed. We also see today men competing on women's sports teams. That's not fair to the women. I'll defend the women in that case.

Silvers So when you're saying women and men here, you're not seeing transgender people as transgender people, you're seeing them as the sex that they were assigned at birth, is that right?

Gianforte Correct.

Silvers Conservative activists and lawmakers brought up the same ideas in 2017, when they proposed the Montana Locker Room Privacy Act. During testimony, opponents were clear about how the law would impact them.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "So on a practical level, that means transgender men who have fully transitioned - have had surgery, gone through hormone therapy, have beards and mustaches - would be legally obligated to go into women's restrooms. That's what this bill does."

"I myself am such a person. Under House Bill 609, I would be required to use the women's bathroom because my original birth certificate has an 'F' instead of an 'M' on my gender marker. So just take a good look at me. Do I look like I belong in women's bathrooms? This is exactly what this bill would do."

Silvers The bill died in committee, but it's worth noting who some of the most vocal advocates were.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "… for policy alliance. We are the public policy partner of Focus on the Family, and we work in alliance with 40 state-based family policy organizations, including Montana Family Foundation. Across the country, there are ..."

Silvers Focus on the Family, one of the organizations the Gianfortes have funded for years. In 2017, they donated $50,000. The other group she mentioned, the Montana Family Foundation, is another conservative Christian group the Gianfortes have supported for a long time. The same year they pushed for this bill, the Gianfortes gave more than $200,000.

For some advocates in Montana, Gianforte's track record is concerning.

Kim Abbott So I think we'd just be looking at where he's prioritized things in the past, you know, to try to predict how he would prioritize things in the future. And it's scary.

Silvers This is Democratic Rep. Kim Abbott from Helena. She's also the co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network.

Abbott You know, it's scary when you look at where he's put his money and where he's used his influence in terms of the LGBT community. It's certainly not policies that promote the health and well-being of our community.

Silvers But Abbott says the governor's race is just one part of this: changing laws starts with the Legislature, where advancing LGBTQ rights and reproductive health care is tough going already. To her, both of these issues come back to a core value that a lot of Montanans seem to support: freedom, independence.

Abbott Being able to choose your family, being able to make personal decisions without government intrusion. Yeah, I think there's there's a ton of overlap, but I do think that foundationally, it's about who gets to fully participate in society and whether they get to do it safely.

Silvers There are plenty of lawmakers who disagree. Some see the governor's race as a chance to finally elect someone who shares their values.

Al Olszewski I support Greg because he's our Republican champion. He won the primary election, and I know he's going to be pro-life.

Silvers Al Olszewski is a state senator from the Flathead. He ran against Gianforte in the primary this year, but he's backing him now. I talked to him on a cell phone.

Olszewski And yes, not that he's anti-LBGTQ, 'cause I don't know that, but I know he's very pro-First Amendment, that we do have religious liberties, and that we are allowed to express ourselves outside of our home and our house of worship.

Silvers Olszewski says he's also concerned about some of Mike Cooney stances, especially his history of defending abortion access.

But regardless of who takes the governor's seat, Olszewski says lawmakers will keep doing what they've been doing: debating the bills that get brought forward and often disagreeing with each other.

Olszewski There's a lot of diverse opinions in the Republican Party, and that's, you know, that's our strength. Our strength of the Republican Party is that you can be an independent thinker and you can have independent opinions.

Silvers I talked to a few other Republicans who did have conflicting views on abortion and gay rights and how much religion should play a role in policy. But not everyone felt like they could be outspoken about their disagreements with the conservative Christian wing of the party. One former lawmaker said it still wasn't in his interest to talk to me about his opinions.

For legislators in either party, bucking the party line on bills about abortion or LGBTQ issues could put them at risk for getting challenged in their next primary. Despite that pressure, from the party and from voters, there are plenty of examples of lawmakers taking bold votes on social issues.

There was the Locker Room Act in 2017, and two years before that, a religious freedom referendum failed to pass the House floor after picking up enough Republican opposition. And then there's what happened in 2013...

[Montana Legislative hearing] "Members of the committee you now have before you for your consideration Senate Bill 107."

Silvers ...when legislators tried to repeal a law listing sex between two women or two men as a felony offense.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "This bill removes unconstitutional language from the deviant sexual conduct code, the language that labels gay and lesbian Montanans felons under the law, punishable by fines of up to $50,000 or up to 10 years in prison."

Silvers There was a lot of testimony against the motion to repeal, from lawmakers who didn't want to condone homosexuality.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "To me, sex is primarily purposed to produce people. That's why we're all here. Sex that doesn't produce people is deviant. That doesn't mean that it's..."

" know, about Bobby's two Daddies or something like that. And if we pass this bill, we're saying, 'This is perfectly fine. This is perfectly acceptable behavior. There's no reason not to teach it in schools.'"

Silvers Advocates weren't sure the bill would pass. And then a Republican lawmaker got up and gave this speech.

[Montana Legislative hearing] "Further discussion, Rep. Ankney."

Silvers Duane Ankney, from Colstrip.

[ Duane Ankney] "Madam Chair, I haven't heard a lot of discussion about rights. This is about rights. These are individuals, they have rights. I raised five kids. Oldest is a daughter and I got four sons, three of them are veterans.

"And them four sons would give their last breath for my daughter to live her life in the way she chooses. To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me.

"I consider myself a good Christian, because my belief in God. He has drug me out of the dregs of drunkenness and all sorts of things. So I know the power of prayer, and the power of God, and I don't think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of anyone of you in here."

Silvers The bill passed in the House and the Senate. Later, when Gov. Bullock signed it into law, some of the proponents wore T-shirts printed with Duane Ankney's face, complete with his cowboy hat and iconic mustache.

Legislators often talk about having to make these kinds of hard votes, the ones to stop the legislation that's the most restrictive. Or, as Rep. Abbott put it, the most punishing.

Sometimes there are also hard votes about progressive bills, like expanding access to contraception or making sure LGBTQ people are protected under the Montanans Human Rights Act. That bill has failed to pass the Legislature for about 20 years.

But all of that political conflict and pressure, it's not just driven by certain legislators or who's sitting in the governor's office.

The other part of this equation might also be the most influential. The opinions of everyday Montanans. People who vote and testify and speak up about what matters to them. And when those voices get louder, politicians and elected officials, they start to pay attention. In that way, how Montanans decide to live together - and with our differences - is up to all of us.

Aronson Shared State is made by Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana Free Press. This episode was reported and produced by Mara Silvers. Nick Mott is our editor. Editorial assistance comes from Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney, Brad Tyre and John Adams. I'm Sarah Aronson. Talk to you next time.

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