Montana Public Radio

Capitol Talk: Antifa; 'Religious Freedom', And Limits On Local Control

Feb 19, 2021

Bills heard this week at the Capitol seek to: limit the ability of local governments and health departments to require restrictions during a public health emergency; limit services to LGBTQ people in the name of religious freedom; make Montana a right-to-work state; declare antifa a domestic terrorist organization — even though there isn't such an organization.

And after years of criticizing dark money groups, former Gov. Steve Bullock raises eyebrows by taking a position with a PAC tied to dark money.

Listen now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Holly Michels and Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk Holly, the House on a mostly-party-line vote has passed a bill that would prohibit local government and health officials from forcing local businesses to take health precautions, like wearing masks that are designed to prevent the spread of disease.

And Republican supporters say this is a way to protect those businesses from being hurt economically. But Democratic opponents and others say it will hinder efforts to control things like the COVID pandemic that we're all experiencing right now.

Holly Michels This bill is actually one of quite a few that are moving through. I think at one point there was more than two dozen I counted that aim to do things like limit local health authority in a pandemic — and also there's some that would try to limit the governor's power.

But this one would really remove any power from local governments to make businesses follow public health orders — like closures, limits on hours, capacity, masks — and it would also stop governments from issuing fines for businesses that don't comply with those orders.

Rep. Jedediah Hinkle from Belgrade is carrying this, and he's arguing that businesses have suffered because of these mandates.

In debate before the full House, Hinkle and other Republicans who spoke in support of the bill really didn't talk about public health very much, just about the economic fallout from the virus. Hinkle talked about businesses that have closed in his community, ones that are teetering on the edge, but we did hear Democrats who oppose the bill talked a lot about public health.

Rep. Tom France of Missoula said that there's the very real possibility of another virus, something worse than COVID, and if this bill passes, it would put communities in a real bind in the future. We also heard from Democrats there's heightened concern because last week Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate.

And what Gianforte said is he thinks local governments and businesses are best equipped to make decisions for their own communities — and right now, they have that ability to put in more restrictive mandates. But this bill, if it were to pass and Gianforte were to sign, it would take that away.

Mauk And of course, we don't at this point know if the governor would sign it or not. He hasn't really indicated that.

Michels No. We asked this week specifically on this bill, and like a lot of other bills, Gianforte said that he wouldn't speak about his actions until the bill reaches his desk. But Gianforte, again, has said that local businesses, local government should be the ones making these decisions. And, of course, local businesses do have control over what happens on their property.

Mauk Rob, former Gov. Steve Bullock has a new job co-chairing a super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century, and this PAC has strong ties to a dark-money group called American Bridge.

This wouldn't necessarily be newsworthy, except Bullock has been a longtime critic of dark money groups. And to say this new job reeks of hypocrisy I think would be an understatement, Rob.

Rob Saldin Yeah, well, Sally, I mean, you're right. Bullock's most prominent issue, arguably dating back to his days as attorney general, has been dark money and trying to reduce the influence of money in politics. And now here he is signing on to co-chair the super PAC that has a dark-money affiliate.

Now, the hypocrisy charge is certainly not new on this front: Bullock — and Tester too, who's also very much associated with campaign finance reform — have both been hit with the hypocrite charge in the past. The allegation is basically that these guys are out there running around piously condemning the supposed evils of money in politics and then they go off and engage in the very activities that they denounce.

Well, in the past, that's never struck me as a particularly compelling charge, because it's entirely reasonable in my mind to say, one, that the rules of the game ought to be changed. But two, until they are changed, it's unreasonable that I should unilaterally disarm and put myself at a huge disadvantage in the election.

And so the real key distinction in my mind has always been between those who think that money, and particularly dark money, have too big of a role in our politics and those who don't think that that's a problem. And it's always been clear where Bullock stands on that.

But Sally, I think you're right, this case is different. Bullock is now a private citizen. He certainly didn't have to sign up to co-chair this super PAC with the dark-money wing. So the hypocrisy charge seems to me to have more merit in this instance.

Mauk Holly, Kila Rep. Carl Glimm is sponsoring a bill called the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and this act would basically allow someone to use their religion as a reason not to provide service to an LGBT person.

Missoula Democrat Bryce Bennett, who's gay, gave emotional testimony against the bill. Here's what he said:

"This bill is very personal to me, and the testimony that we heard today was personal to me as well — because I have lived those experiences. This bill would allow people like me to be denied housing, to be kicked out of restaurants, to be denied health care, to be fired from my job, not because of something that I did but simply because of who I am."

Mauk And the bill's sponsor, Holly, denies that that would be the bill's effect, but it's hard to argue otherwise, I think.

Michels Yeah, what this bill says is people don't have to do things that burden their religious expression, and it would also allow people to make arguments in court based on claims their ability to exercise religious beliefs had been limited.

Supporters have argued that it would safeguard religious freedoms against government interests, but we heard a lot of opponents to the bill give testimony, like Bennett's, that was pretty impactful, talking about concerns that this would just really affect their ability to get jobs, rent, apartments, you know, have plumbers come over to work on their house.

We had just four supporters of the bill, they were saying it would do things like stop florists from having to provide services for a same-sex wedding. But opponent after opponent ... you know, there's one who talked about he was worried the doctors would not provide him with necessary medical care.

Sen. Glimm, he countered, from what we heard from Sen. Bennett there, Glimm saying that he doesn't believe that would be the outcome of the bill. But we do know there's a similar federal law this is modeled off of that's gone through court several times.

One ruling in 2008 said it couldn't be used to justify discrimination against employees, but in 2019, a judge said that this federal law, again, could allow providers or insurers to deny health care treatment or coverage.

And this is sort of a theme in recent days at the Capitol. We've seen tensions collide between a lot of these so-called religious freedom bills and then LGBTQ rights. There's this hearing, there's another one on campus free speech laws and we've heard from people advocating for rights of LGBTQ people that this is just something that's been a lot more pressured this session.

We're looking at the first Republican governor in 16 years, and a lot of legislation like this has been vetoed before by Democratic governors, so there might be different outcomes and it's definitely something that's been a central theme of this last week up at the Capitol.

Mauk Rob, similar bills have passed in other states and that has prompted boycotts in some instances that have hurt those states' economic bottom lines.

Saldin Sure, Sally, and there's actually some longer history to that sort of pressure.

You know, this was a thing back in the day when the Martin Luther King holiday was being debated. Arizona's resistance to that led the NFL to yank the Super Bowl out of Pheonix one year. South Carolina faced a similar boycott from the NCAA back when the Confederate flag was flying over the state capitol.

And then, as you suggest Sally, right, more recently, you've got these LGBT issues that have led to boycotts of various sorts.

Probably most notable was North Carolina. North Carolina faced a backlash over the so-called "bathroom bill," including, once again, the NCAA. And you had Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, among others, canceling concerts, this sort of thing. Idaho is another place where this has been an issue.

Idaho is apparently currently under scrutiny by the NCAA, and might have Boise as a host site for the NCAA tournament moved elsewhere. So yes, there are some potential economic costs to this kind of legislation for sure.

Mauk Holly, another bill sponsored by Republican Caleb Hinkle would make Montana the 28th so-called "right to work" state. And this bill drew a lot of opposition, not just from union workers, as one would expect, but also from some prominent employers.

Michels Yeah, there were a lot of people opposed to this bill. What it would do is prohibit the requirement of belonging to a union as a condition of employment, and it would also bar private-sector unions from requiring non-members covered by bargaining agreements to pay union dues.

On the public union side, there's already been significant changes after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018 that said public sector unions can't collect fees for bargaining on behalf of non-members. But that's not something that applies to private sector unions.

We heard, you know, from who you'd expect: AFL-CIO, other big unions that this bill would hurt their ability to negotiate fair wages and good benefits. They also said that many of them already bargain on behalf of workers even if they don't pay dues.

One opponent was a steel worker who works at the Stillwater Mine, and he was saying that a lot of employees and union members are saying these union jobs are their ticket to the middle class. This worker also made a pretty interesting point that, he was saying himself and a lot of union members are politically conservative — which felt like he was trying to say to the committee, "You know, this isn't just liberals or Democrats that are opposing the bill, but it's politically-conservative folks, too."

But like you said, two of the state's larger employers, the company that operates the Stillwater Mine and other operations and NorthWestern Energy, also spoke in opposition to the bill. They argued it would create division between the work force and harm productive relationships that they say exist between the union and employers.

There were individuals who backed the bill, but most of the support we heard came from groups like the national right to work organization, Montana Right to Work and Americans for Prosperity. These groups argue that what they called "forced unionism" doesn't really make sense, and that if a union was doing a good job advocating for people, it wouldn't need to require dues.

But there was, like you said, a lot more opposition. There were so many people opposed that we hit a point in the hearing where people were just limited to giving their name and their employer — any affiliation they had — just because they ran out of time for opponents.

I think it's interesting, too: one layer to this is during the election, now Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras told people at a campaign stop in Sydney that Gov. Greg Gianforte, if he were to become governor, wouldn't veto a right-to-work bill.

The campaign later had Juras clarify that she says she hadn't spoken to Gianforte when she made that statement, and it wouldn't be a priority for them. The campaign also tried to say audio that came from this event was edited.

But even though it's not a priority for Gianforte, it is for at least some Republican legislators, so it'll be something he'll have to weigh in on if it reaches his desk.

Mauk Rob, another Republican-sponsored bill would designate antifa as a domestic terrorism group, even though there is no antifa organization, per say.

Saldin Right. Antifa obviously stands for antifascist. It's this kind of very loose, amorphous network of hard-left activists — and they absolutely have been involved in violence in parts of the country, which is appalling — but they've also, I think, arguably been blown up into something a little bigger than they actually are.

Notably, former President Trump talked about antifa a great deal, falsely claiming, for instance, that it was antifa, not his own supporters, who were behind the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. But, you know, Sally, you noted that critics of the bill point out that here in Montana, we haven't actually had any antifa activity.

Now, supporters of the measure say they want to send a message that antifa isn't welcome in Montana, but that doesn't pass muster with opponents, who say this is a silly distraction, especially when we have much more serious threats from far-right-wing extremists.

But you know Sally, the thing that stood out to me this week as being most notable is that at the beginning of the week, this bill had over 50 co-sponsors. But after a hearing, over half of those co-sponsors withdrew their support, which is extremely unusual.

And it seems that the primary reason for those members doing that is that the bill's sponsor, Braxton Mitchell of Columbia Falls, wasn't willing to add other extremist groups to his list of domestic terror organizations. So, you know, bottom line, losing over half of your co-sponsors certainly doesn't bode well for the future of this bill.

Mauk Holly and Rob, thank you. Talk to you again next week.

Saldin Thanks Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast or listen online.