HELENA — Members and advocates of the LGBTQ+ community packed the steps of the State Capitol on Monday to urge lawmakers to vote down bills they say will lead to more discrimination. Supporters of those bills working their way through the Montana House and Senate argue the measures are necessary for a number of reasons, including to make sure religious freedoms are protected.
The proposed legislation being opposed by rally members on Monday were:
- HB 112, which would prevent trans youth from participating in competitive high school sports programs.
- SB 280, which would require trans people to have surgery and obtain a court order to change the gender marker on their birth certificate.
- HB 427, which would limit gender-affirming medical care for transgender, nonbinary, and Two Spirit youth.
- SB 215, which would require a compelling governmental interest in order to prevent a person’s expression of their religious beliefs.
Senate BIll 215 is a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation that seeks to restore the freedom of religion to the same level of protection as freedom of speech.
Similar legislation was presented before the 2015 Montana Legislature, House Bill 615. That bill was defeated, although narrowly with a 50-50 split vote in the state House of Representatives.
“We’re always on the defensive. Every two years we have to show up here and fight for our humanity and try to explain to a bunch of suits why we’re in fact people,” said Kyndra Nevin at the rally.
Supporters of Senate Bill 215 say it won't lead to more discrimination, and that the aim of the bill is to protect the rights of people of faith.
At a Mar. 11 House Judiciary Committee meeting, Sen. Carl Glimm, R- Kila, said: “So how far does this go? Does it allow child abuse or spousal abuse, beatings or blanket discrimination? No. All these things do have a compelling government interest to overrule your belief or your claim to a religious liberty there.”
There are 21 other states that currently have similar Religious Freedom Restoration laws, although laws do vary by state.
There are cases where those laws were cited in broad ways to justify discriminatory action.
In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the owner of a funeral home in Michigan fired a trans-worker for not wearing a uniform that matched their biological gender. The owner argued that keeping them on staff was against their religious freedom, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration law in their state.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States in 2020. The justices ruled against that funeral home owner in a 6–3 decision.
Another concern with SB 215 is that in Montana sexual orientation or gender identity are not included in the state’s civil rights laws, although they are included in some county and city codes.
“The people that are pushing these bills forward know very well that this will lead to open discrimination against people who face it every single day,” said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “By passing these bills we will make Montana a place where LGBT+ people are no longer welcome and we have to defeat it because of that reason.”
SB 215 has received the support of the Governor’s Office, which very well may be the support needed to get the measure through the House this session.