Montana House backs bill on religious challenges to rules

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana House has endorsed a bill that would allow people to challenge government regulations that interfere with their religious beliefs.

The approval came Wednesday after lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have made it clear the law couldn’t be used to justify discrimination.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government would have to prove any regulations that substantially interfere with someone’s religious beliefs are justified by a compelling state interest and are being accomplished by the least restrictive means possible.

The LGBTQ community opposes the bill, arguing it could lead to challenges against ordinances in several cities that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The Montana Human Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Republican bill sponsor Sen. Carl Glimm of Kila has said religious freedom laws have been used to prevent things like criminal prosecution of Native Americans for possessing eagle feathers for religious reasons and to prevent schools from requiring Native American children to cut their hair in violation of their religious beliefs. He said it is not an attempt to allow challenges to non-discrimination ordinances.

Because opponents repeatedly said the bill is meant to protect religious rights, not overturn non-discrimination ordinances, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena sought to amend the bill Wednesday to say it could not be used to challenge such ordinances or the protections granted under the Montana Human Rights Act.

Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell urged support for the amendment, saying: “Because I suspect we will pass this bill today, I support this amendment if it gives comfort to those people who feel they will be subject to it.”

Republican Rep. John Fuller of Whitefish opposed the amendment, saying: “Do not make me NOT do what my God tells me I have to do.”

The amendment failed on a 47-53 vote before the House endorsed the measure 61-39 on second reading. A third reading is scheduled Thursday before it heads to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte for his signature. He has indicated his support for the bill.