HELENA – The Montana Legislature turned away a proposed referendum Friday that if enacted by voters would have given people grounds to disobey any state laws that violate their religion.
After a heated floor debate that moved the bill sponsor to raise his camouflaged Bible, state representatives failed to pass House Bill 615 on a 50-50 vote. The bill resembles a recent Indiana law that allows open discrimination for the sake of “religious freedom.”
Opponents said the bill language was so vague that it would have allowed any business, church or individual to openly discriminate and violate laws.
Supporters said the measure would have brought to the state level a 1993 federal law aimed at preventing legislation that substantially burdens a person’s right to exercise religion.
When he presented the proposal Wednesday, Republican Rep. Carl Glimm of Kila said he intended for the bill to prioritize people’s “sincerely held religious belief” above job descriptions. He and other supporters said it would allow county clerks to refuse marriage licenses to gay people and let pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions if they felt it would inhibit their religious practice.
Representatives chatting on the edges of the House floor hushed when Democratic Rep. Christopher Pope looked across the aisle and said there has been plenty of testimony to enlighten anyone wondering why the bill offends so many people.
“If it was unintended, please know that this particular bill is causing a great deal of pain and suffering in this room at a quarter of five,” Pope said. “And if this bill leaves this House it will create a tremendous amount of unintended pain and suffering in the state of Montana.”
By that point, members of his caucus and the public had told stories of personal discrimination that could be legalized under Glimm’s proposal.
Crow tribal member Democratic Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez said there are nine hate groups in Montana and the bill would stop just short of allowing them to kill her.
“American Indians are the walking dead because of how they’re treated by people who discriminate,” Pease-Lopez said. “And now we’re going to license it. We’re going to elevate it.”
Democratic Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula said the proposal would legalize the intolerance he’s experienced as a gay man in Montana and ask minorities to live in fear.
“I am a religious person, I believe in religious freedom, but this isn’t about that,” Bennett said. “This is about legalized discrimination of our neighbors and our friends and it’s about discrimination against people like me.”
Republican Rep. Keith Regier of Kalispell stood up after Bennett.
“I’m going to stay focused on what this bill actually does,” Regier said. “It simply reasserts a higher legal standard in religious briefcases.”
The proposal would safeguard any action in violation of state law that is done “in a manner substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief.” Democratic Rep. Margie MacDonald of Billings held up The White Man’s Bible, a white supremacy handbook, when she said that language legalizes anything done in the name of a belief system.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said before the floor debate that Montanans respect each other enough not to need a law like Indiana’s, which at least one large corporation cited when pulling its business out of that state this week.
“What’s happening in Indiana is something that shouldn’t be happening in Montana,” Bullock said before the floor debate. He added, “We don’t need laws like that imported into our state.”
The proposal is not technically dead. It could be reconsidered during the House floor session on Saturday and pass if one Republican decided to change his or her vote. It would then go before voters on the November 2016 ballot.