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Montana governor signs cruel bill turning ‘shield of religious freedom’ into ‘weapon to attack’ LGBT+ people

Maggie Baska April 25, 2021
Greg Gianforte Montana parade american flags

Current Republican governor Greg Gianforte appeared during a campaign on 2 July 2018 in Livingston, Montana. (Photo by William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images)

Montana’s governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill allowing people to challenge government regulations that interfere with their religious beliefs, effectively ‘weaponising’ religion against LGBT people.

The Republican signed controversial Senate Bill 215 on Thursday (22 April), otherwise known as the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), into law. The bill would enable service providers and individuals to freely deny certain goods and aid to LGBT+ people.

The legislation also requires state officials to show a “compelling governmental interest” to “interfere with a person’s religious beliefs”.

A spokesperson for Gianforte’s office said in a media release that the governor signed SB 215 into law to “protect the freedom of people of all faiths to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs”, the Montana Standard reported.

“Montana joins 21 other states with RFRA laws, where it has historically been used to allow Native American children to wear braids in school, Sikhs to wear turbans in the military and Christian employers to refuse to cover abortions under their health insurance policies,” the spokesperson added.

However, activists say the new law would allow for discrimination against LGBT+ people and other groups across a wide range of goods and services. Shawn Reagor, director of equality and economic justice with the Montana Human Rights Network, told the Associated Press that the law will effectively weaponise religion to attack others.

“This [law] allows individuals to turn the shield of religious freedom we all hold dear into a weapon to attack LGBTQ and Indigenous Montanans,” Reagor said. “It goes against the live-and-let-live values we hold as a state, recent court rulings and the ordinances of five Montana cities and counties.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said in a statement that Montana’s new law “represents the fourth anti-LGBTQ and second RFRA bill sent to a governor’s desk this session”. Alphonso David, president of the HRC, decried the bill, saying it will have a “significant impact on vulnerable communities” in Montana – “including people of faith, women and LGBTQ people”.

“Let me be clear: religious liberty and equality are not mutually exclusive, and Montanas will not stand by as governor Gianforte and fearful legislators seek to actively discriminate against the LGBTQ population,” David said.

This type of legislation is not new. In 2015, the then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence signed into law one version of the RFRA to allow Indiana businesses and individuals to cite their religious freedom as a legal defence, which can be used to discriminate against the LGBT+ community based on religion.

The ACLU has warned that it is seeing “individuals and institutions claiming a right to discriminate – by refusing to provide services to women and LGBT people – based on religious objections”.

It said this discrimination could take many forms including “religiously affiliated schools firing women because they become pregnant while not married” or “bridal salons, photo studios, and reception halls closing their doors to same-sex couples planning their weddings”.

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