A bill that would bar “the application of foreign law” in state courts received initial approval from the Montana Senate Thursday afternoon, passing a second reading on the Senate floor 28-21.
The bill must pass a final vote before heading to the House.
Under Senate Bill 97, introduced by state Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, state courts would be prohibited from applying foreign laws in Montana courts when it violates the Montana or United States constitutions.
Although the bill does not explicitly mention Islamic Sharia law, multiple proponents expressed fears that Islamic religious governance would displace the constitutions of the United States and Montana as immigrants and refugees resettle here.
Sharia is a set of Muslim religious laws that guides believers in personal interactions and business contracts.
The proposed measure was the subject of a lively Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 24, during which more than 25 people testified in its favor, with seven opponents calling the bill “a solution in search of a problem.” Opponents also said the measure only exacerbates anti-Muslim sentiment at a time when the Trump administration is pushing a bleak view of Islam through its policy-making decisions.
“This effort is not solving a problem, but it is simply based on an out-of-state model in policy that is a direct reaction to Islamophobia and it is an underhanded effort to spread an alarmist message about Islam in order to keep Muslims in the United States on the margins,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said in opposing the bill. “This is simply a policy rooted in xenophobia that is unfounded and unfair.”
But Regier said the bill safeguards fundamental constitutional rights that could otherwise be jeopardized, and adds clarity to deter judicial misinterpretation.
“For these immigrants to retain their diverse rule of law would create a society in chaos,” Regier said.
On Jan. 31, the bill passed the committee on a party-line vote of 7-3, with all three Democrats opposing a measure they said was unnecessary and only fueled anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Some of the proponents who testified during the committee hearing hailed from Flathead Valley districts that Regier represents, including Sandy Montgomery.
“This bill is long overdue. We have allowed legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and now refugees to take advantage of our law and our culture and to take up their own agendas,” Montgomery said. “They have no intention to abide by our laws nor are they interested in assimilating into our culture.”
Sandy Bradford, of Helena, said the application of Sharia law in state courts could weaken women’s rights.
“It is my opinion that Islam is not a peaceful religion. In fact Islam is not a religion at all but rather an ideology. Islam in my opinion is an enemy to all. But especially to women.”
Abigail St. Lawrence, an attorney with the Montana Association of Christians, said the notion that Sharia law could supersede the state and U.S. constitutions is not true.
“I hear the concerns about protecting women, about protecting our friends and neighbors. This bill does not do that,” she said. “I have practiced law for 13 years in Montana. This has literally never happened in the United States. The reason for this is we have a constitution that protects us. This bill is not necessary.”