HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that supporters say would ensure the right of religious freedom, but opponents said could open the door to discrimination.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 215, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, a Republican from Kila. The bill is titled as a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” (RFRA).
The bill would say that state and local governments can only put a burden on a person or organization’s right to free exercise of religion if their action is “essential to further a compelling governmental interest” and “the least restrictive means” of achieving that interest. It would also codify that people can use their belief that their exercise of religion has been limited as a claim or defense in legal proceedings.
Supporters of SB 215 said the federal government and more than 20 other states have their own version of an RFRA. They said the goal is to make sure that potential impacts on someone’s religious expression are considered with the highest scrutiny in courts.
Matt Sharp, senior counsel with the national Christian-oriented legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, said this type of law has been used infrequently in states where it has been implemented, and he did not see it as encouraging discrimination.
“We consistently see it serving its purpose – both as originally and as it continues to be – which is protecting religious minorities, giving them a fair day in court so they can make a case why a particular law burdens their religion,” he said. “They might win and they might lose, but what we’re trying to give them is a fair hearing in court to make that case.”
During his testimony, Sharp pointed to examples of strongly held religious beliefs he argued ought to be protected, including Muslim men wearing beards, Jewish business owners closing on Saturdays, Catholic religious groups refusing to pay for some contraceptives and Christian florists declining to provide services for same-sex weddings.
Opponents said SB 215 has broader language than some of the RFRAs that have been implemented in other states.
Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, noted that some RFRAs apply only when a government action puts a “significant burden” on exercise of religion. She said, since SB 215 doesn’t have that specific reference, it would allow religious objections when the impact is much smaller.
“What this bill does is invite questions by courts as to why the language is different, it invites questions by claimants as to why the language is different, and it invites the idea that any objection – any religious objection to a requirement, such as an anti-discrimination law – is justified under this law,” said Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana.
A number of opponents testified that they were concerned that people objecting on religious grounds could make it harder for some women to receive birth control or lead to LGBT people being denied services.
In one exchange during the hearing, Democratic Sen. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, a member of the LGBT community, asked Glimm to justify the bill’s potential impacts.
“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,” Bennett said. “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.”
“This bill is not a blanket license to discriminate,” Glimm responded. “All this bill does is give an ability to use religion in the court of law, and those arguments that you are referring to would then have to be worked out in the court. But all the examples you gave, I don’t think a single one of them would qualify under this bill.”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.
Similar bills to SB 215 have been introduced in previous Legislatures. In 2015, Glimm tried to put a nearly identical proposal before voters as a referendum. That proposal, House Bill 615, failed in the House on a 50-50 vote.