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Montana House narrowly defeats ‘religious freedom’ bill on deadlocked vote

Montana House narrowly defeats ‘religious freedom’ bill on deadlocked vote
Montana state capitol in Helena.
Montana state capitol in Helena.

HELENA, Mont. — 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.

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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.

Crow tribal member Democratic Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez countered that 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.”

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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.”

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.”

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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.”

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