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Opinion: State courage or shame regarding tolerance in Montana

Passage of SB 215, with a shadow title of “Establish the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” opens the door for advancing discrimination in Montana, changing us from a courageous and tolerant state to one of bigotry and intolerance.

Let’s look at history. Twenty-nine years ago, Billings set the standard for rejection of hatred and bigotry by saying “NO” to racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic ultra-right-wing extremist behavior. Billings’ actions made me proud of them and Montana.

The Northwest United Skinheads and elements of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation for months had abused and intimidated folks in Billings who were not “white, American and Christian.” Anyone else was not welcome in their America, or their Billings.

Billings’ response to hatred and bigotry was a continuum of courage, culminating in a single act of solidarity that was stunning in its simplicity and strength.

After a rock crashed through the bedroom window of the 5-year old son of a Jewish family — a window decorated with the words “Happy Hanukkah” and other Jewish symbols — Billings stood up in support.   

Community leaders from churches, labor, government and non-profits helped place small paper drawings of menorahs in windows across Billings. Then the Billings Gazette printed a full page colored drawing of a menorah with the suggestion that it be hung in Billings’ windows. Immediately over 10,000 menorahs sprouted up in windows, proudly demonstrating that Billings stood tall against bigoted extremism.

Billings and Montana gained a positive national and international identity. New York City recognized Billings’ leaders, along with Montana Governor Marc Racicot, with the city’s prestigious Crystal Apple, usually reserved for major national and international leaders. 

World renowned photographer Frederic Brenner staged a photograph of hundreds of Billings people holding menorahs which is recognized by the Library of Congress and was featured in LIFE magazine.

In Billings the concept of “Not in Our Town” was born, sprouting up in many communities across the country, creating a national “Not in Our Town” (NIOT) movement. It later led to adoption of anti-discrimination ordinances in many communities across Montana.

Such Non-Discrimination Ordinances (NDOs) were needed by cities since the Montana Legislature had defeated such efforts after opposition from groups who remain in that fight today. Missoula passed an NDO in 2010, Helena in 2012, Butte and Bozeman in 2014 and Whitefish in 2016. Billings failed in such efforts twice, in 2014 and also in 2019, after staunch opposition from the group which is now the lead proponent of SB 215, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Opposition to the Billings NDO was led by the Montana Family Foundation, which has been funded by nearly $900,000 from the Gianforte Family Trust. Serving on the Board of Directors of the Montana Family Foundation for many years was Susan Gianforte, spouse of now Governor Greg Gianforte.

Not surprisingly, this year, in addition to the Montana Family Foundation testifying in support of SB 215, Lt. Governor Kristin Juras testified on behalf of Governor Gianforte, whose record is having personally and repeatedly opposed the NDO in Bozeman before its passage.

Proponents say SB 215 is needed to protect the religious freedom rights of Montanans. Opponents, assert that such protection is already in place through the Montana Constitution and in case law. The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s study on states’ protection of exercise of religion showed that eighteen states had versions of a religious freedom restoration law, while 13 other states, including Montana, had such protections from court rulings.

Additionally, Montana’s constitutional right of religious freedom protects the rights of everyone. The misnamed legislative bills actually grant power to some people to use their religious beliefs as weapons to discriminate against other people, usually against people whose sexual orientation or gender identity they might find offensive. The Montana Constitution gets religious freedom right, while the proposed bills get it wrong.

And, here in Montana it is more than suspicious that “the usual suspects” back SB 215 – people, including the Governor, who have both locally and in the state Legislature opposed the protection from discrimination.

I believe most Montanans, having a libertarian streak, are tolerant.  As a state, we are better than SB 215 would make us.  It should be defeated.