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Montana governor signs law clarifying religious freedom protections

Montana state capitol Montana state capitol/ Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock

Montana’s governor on Thursday signed a law holding the state to a high burden of proof when it violates someone’s religious beliefs. 

Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed SB 215, a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The 1993 federal law established standards that the government must meet when it violates someone’s sincerely-held religious beliefs, and allowed people to challenge religious freedom violations in court.

According to the Associated Press, 21 other states have their own version of RFRA. 

Supporters of the bill say it will give people legal recourse when the state impedes their ability to practice their religion, while opponents say it will allow for discrimination against individuals identifying as LGBT. 

Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the law will not always vindicate religious freedom claims; rather, he said, it provides people with a legal recourse when they believe their rights have been violated by the state.

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“Citizens should not be left defenseless when their government attempts to burden their ability to live and worship according to their faith,” Sharp stated on Thursday. He added that the law “provides a sensible balancing test for courts to use when reviewing government policies that infringe upon the religious freedom rights of Montanans.”

“The law doesn’t automatically decide who will win every disagreement, but it does ensure that every Montanan—regardless of belief system or political power—receives a fair hearing when government action forces a person to violate his or her religious beliefs,” he said. 

According to Montana’s new law, a state action cannot “substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion” unless it meets two qualifications. In these cases, the state must prove that its action “is essential to further a compelling governmental interest,” and is also “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The law allows people to challenge the state in court when their “exercise of religion has been substantially burdened” and they believe the state exceeded its lawful bounds in doing so.

Shawn Reagor, director of Equality and Economic Justice with the Montana Human Rights Network, told the AP that the law “allows individuals to turn the shield of religious freedom we all hold dear into a weapon to attack LGBTQ and Indigenous Montanans.”

“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,” Reagor said. 

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The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 97-3 and was signed by former President Bill Clinton. Religious groups and business owners have invoked it in high-profile Supreme Court cases, opposing government laws such as the HHS contraceptive mandate. The craft chain Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor were two entities that challenged the mandate under RFRA.

“What this law basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion,” Clinton said when he signed RFRA in 1993.

Members of other minority faiths have invoked the law as well in religious freedom cases, including Native Americans and Sikhs.

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