HELENA — A Republican lawmaker proposed Wednesday that the Legislature ask voters if they want additional religious protections in Montana’s constitution.
Rep. Carl Glimm of Kila said he brought House Bill 615 before the House Judiciary Committee to prioritize people’s personal beliefs above job descriptions.
The proposal would give people a right to challenge state laws they say burden their freedom to exercise religion.
Glimm and bill supporters referenced Yellowstone clerks who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after U.S. District Judge Brian Morris overturned Montana’s gay-marriage ban in November.
“It doesn’t say (same-sex couples) can’t get marriage licenses,” Glimm said of his proposal. “It just says that you don’t have to provide it if that’s your religious belief.”
Supporters said the measure would also protect pharmacists who do not want to dispense birth control pills or emergency contraceptives.
Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation testified in favor of the bill along with representatives of Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist churches. Laszloffy said the measure would likely not protect, for instance, a Muslim woman who sued the state of Florida in 2002 after being told she could not wear a religious veil in her driver’s license photo.
Assistant Pastor Tyler Anderson of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Helena argued against the bill. Anderson said infusing religion in state law could lead to infringements on religious independence.
Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson told the committee it’s rare for a law not to defy someone’s personal beliefs.
Nelson and other opponents argued that ample religious protections exist in the United States and Montana constitutions. Opponents said codifying the religious protections would open the floodgates for individuals, corporations and churches to object to any state law they say violates their religion.
Republican Rep. Seth Berglee asked the retired Justice whether he believes state law supersedes religious beliefs.
Nelson replied, “Montana citizens should not have to go and beg their public officials for the benefits to which they’re entitled under the laws in this state.”
Nelson said public employees and officials are aware of their responsibility to uphold the law, which bill supporters contended.
“You shouldn’t have to turn against your religious belief to do that job,” Glimm said.
Laszloffy said 19 other states have enacted similar legislation, although some committee members questioned whether those laws were as vague as Glimm’s proposal.