HELENA – After a lengthy debate, with Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on the intent of a Senate bill to prohibit state courts from applying foreign law, the legislation advanced in the House largely along party lines with a 56-44 vote.
Senate Bill 97, carried by Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, doesn’t specifically mention Sharia law, but it was the only kind of foreign law mentioned during testimony in both the Senate and House judiciary committees.
Shariah law is the religious governance followed by people practicing Islam. Shariah uses religious texts to determine divine will. Its implementation varies across the world, with Saudi Arabia adhering to strict punishments like stoning, while in other countries it is most regularly used in personal law such as marriage and divorce.
Democrats said the bill targets Muslims, while Republicans said it simply reinforces the Montana and U.S. constitutions.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying the bill in the House. He said the legislation isn’t intended to target a specific group and instead protects freedom of religion
“As far as being determined xenophobic, that’s an insult,” Tschida said. “I’m not intolerant. This is not anti-Muslim.”
Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said the discussion of the bill being a religious law was unwarranted.
“We’ve heard a lot of discussions about this being a religious law and specifically directed at preventing Shariah law and I just don’t read it that way,” she said.
But Democrats pointed out extensive testimony from proponents in committee who expressed fears that Muslims would eventually demand Shariah law be used in American courts.
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During a hearing in Senate Judiciary, Sandy Bradford, a Helena resident, said Islam is not peaceful and is an enemy to all. Sandy Montgomery, from the Flathead, said the bill was long overdue.
“We have allowed legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and now refugees to take advantage of our law and culture to take up their own agendas,” Montgomery said. “They have no intention to abide by our laws, nor are they interested in assimilating to our culture.”
Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, said the testimony in the House Judiciary committee was also peppered with anti-Muslim bigotry. Since she thinks the bill targets people who practice Islam, she introduced an amendment that specifies a ban on both Shariah law and the Law of Moses.
In the amendment’s language, a court would not be able to include the Law of Moses, which bans clothing made of two or more fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), the use of bears in retaliation for mocking the bald (II Kings 2:23-24), or the stoning of gluttons and drunkards (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21).
“The courts have said that laws that single out certain religions violate the First Amendment,” she said. “So with this amendment I think we can show the state of Montana that it is not just about Islamic Law.”
The amendment failed 82-18.
Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said the legislation is almost identical to a bill that was struck down in Oklahoma for specifically mentioning Shariah law. She said Regier’s version has the same end result even if it doesn’t say Shariah law.
“Let’s not forget the roots of this bill,” she said. “Let’s not forget that our children are watching.”
The bill has made its way through first the Senate and now the House, with Republicans supporting it. After a final vote in the House on Tuesday, SB97 will go to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.