After a heated floor debate, the Montana House failed to pass a “religious freedom” bill, deadlocking on a 50-50 vote, effectively defeating House Bill 615 on Friday. H.B. 615, sponsored by Rep. Karl Glimm (R-Kila), would have placed a legislative referendum on the November 2016 ballot that, if approved by voters, would have legalized discrimination, if it was based on a person’s religious beliefs.
Similar to a law that was recently passed in the state of Indiana, H.B. 615 would have allowed for religious-based discrimination, such as allowing business owners to deny services to gay and lesbian customers. It also could have opened up a myriad of other opportunities for bigots to discriminate against people, under the cover of religion. For example, the law could have made it possible for a pharmacist to refuse to provide birth control to a woman, or for a doctor to deny treatment to a HIV patient who happened to be gay.
The vote fell mostly on party lines, with all 41 Democrats voting NAY, compared to 50 Republicans who voted YEA, with 9 Republicans joining the Democrats, in voting against the measure.
The debate on the House Floor was impassioned, with Democrats raising a number of objections to the legislation. Rep. Margie MacDonald (D-Billings) hoisted up a copy of The White Man’s Bible, a White Nationalist religious text, for the racist Church of the Creator (COTC), arguing that the language in the bill would essentially legalize anything done in the name of a religious belief system.
Crow tribal member Carolyn Peace-Lopez (D-Hardin) argued that the law could empower the nine active hate groups in the state, by granting them legal protection to discriminate against American Indians. She remarked:
American Indians are the walking dead because of how they’re treated by people who discriminate. And now we’re going to license it. We’re going to elevate it.
Rep. Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula), a gay lawmaker, noted that the law could be used to discriminate against him. Bennett stated:
I am a religious person, I believe in religious freedom, but this isn’t about that. This is about legalized discrimination of our neighbors and our friends and it’s about discrimination against people like me.
Following the debate, the House deadlocked on a 50-50 vote, preventing the measure from moving forward. The Democrats stayed unified in opposition, and with 9 Republicans defecting from GOP orthodoxy, they had the votes to stymie the measure.
By killing this ill-chosen piece of legislation, Montana has avoided traveling down the “religious freedom” rabbit hole that has legalized discrimination in so many other red states across the country. Laws that sanction bigotry, not only violate the rights of individuals, but they also invite the backlash of economic boycotts. Democrats and sensible Republicans need to unite in every state, to defeat measures designed to empower bigots to discriminate against people, based on “religious beliefs”.
Discrimination is no less ugly just because the person doing it says a prayer before or after they discriminate. “Religious freedom” laws that give legal cover for bigotry should be rejected throughout the country. Luckily Montana had just enough Democrats and sane Republicans to stop the law from moving forward. Just barely.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.