HELENA — The Montana Legislature was poised to pass a measure to ban Shariah and other foreign laws from being used in courtrooms after it passed a key vote in the state House on Monday.
Lawmakers endorsed the measure 56-44 after a floor debate, and it must pass a final, procedural vote before it is sent to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
“The governor will take a close look at the proposed legislation if it reaches his desk,” spokeswoman Ronja Abel said. “He would prefer the Legislature pass an infrastructure bill that would build Montana communities and put folks to work all across the state.”
Montana is one of 13 states, including Idaho, considering legislation this year that would prohibit the use of foreign law in state courts. Nine states already have similar laws, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Montana’s bill, like most of the others, does not single out Shariah law, which is used in some parts of the Islamic world, though it has been the focus of nearly everyone who testified about it.
Opponents say Shariah law is not named in the Montana legislation only because an Oklahoma constitutional amendment that did so ran into legal trouble in 2011.
A judge barred that voter-approved amendment from being certified after a Muslim man sued over it, saying it singled out his religion for negative treatment.
Even if it doesn’t name Shariah law, the Montana bill is driven by a xenophobic and irrational fear of Islam and won’t hold up to a lawsuit if it’s challenged, opponents said.
“If you go back and listen to the testimony of the proponents of this bill in both the House and Senate, the legislative intent is crystal clear that it targets one religion,” Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill Smith of Missoula said. “That this was a Shariah law bill. It’s what every proponent had talked about.”
Opponents also questioned whether the bill would harm the state’s ability to enter into contracts with foreign companies and how Native American tribes would be affected.
Supporters argued that it aims only to support the U.S. and Montana constitutions, and the tribes and economy would not be affected. Republican Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the state and federal constitutions are under assault and need protection like the legislation provides.
Tschida said he was insulted that the legislation was being labeled as xenophobic.
“I find anybody who says that, they’re being more intolerant than I am,” he said. “I’m not intolerant. I’ll show you some pictures on my phone to verify that.”
The lengthy debate was interrupted at one point by a protester in the House gallery holding up a sign telling legislators to vote against the bill. Capitol security had missed the sign in an initial sweep of the crowded gallery, during which they collected other banners and signs that said “Peace” and “I love my Muslim neighbor.”
Two women, Chris Love and Donna Haglund, drove 160 miles from their homes in Corvallis to Helena to see the vote on what they called a measure that does nothing but promote fearmongering of Islam.
“It’s unnecessary. The constitutions of the state and the United States exist without the Montana Legislature passing this law, and they stand in their own strength,” Love said.