Saying he wants to protect the “right to freely exercise their religion,” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill into law Thursday that prohibits the government from “burdening” an individual’s religious liberty and gives citizens the right to sue if they believe their rights have been infringed.
The new law, known as the “Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” was opposed by some LGBT activists and groups, although the text of the law does not mention any specific issues.
The new law says the state “may not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion” unless two things can be demonstrated: 1) the state’s action is essential to “further a compelling governmental interest,” and, 2) the action is the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The law gives individuals the right to file a lawsuit “regardless of whether the state of Montana or one of its political subdivisions is a party to the proceeding.” Legal relief can include damages and attorney fees, the law says.
The bill’s legislative findings say religious liberty is a “fundamental right.” Prior to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling, laws “burdening exercise of religion had to be justified by a compelling governmental interest,” the findings say.
“To protect Montanans’ right to freely exercise their religion, I was proud to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act today,” Gianforte, a Republican, tweeted.
To protect Montanans’ right to freely exercise their religion, I was proud to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act today.— Governor Greg Gianforte (@GovGianforte) April 22, 2021
Thank you to Sen. Carl Glimm (R-Kila) for your work on this legislation. pic.twitter.com/3sRFEjKUpl
Shawn Reagor, director of Equality and Economic Justice with the Montana Human Rights Network, told the Associated Press the law “allows individuals to turn the shield of religious freedom we all hold dear into a weapon to attack LGBTQ and Indigenous Montanans.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom applauded Gianforte for signing the bill into law.
“Citizens should not be left defenseless when their government attempts to burden their ability to live and worship according to their faith,” said ADF senior counsel Matt Sharp. “This 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.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Pete Marovich/Stringer
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.