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Bill addressing use of foreign laws passes preliminary vote

March 21, 2017

A proposal to prohibit state courts from relying on foreign laws that run afoul of the Montana or U.S. constitutions appears headed to the governor’s desk after passing a preliminary vote in the state House on Monday.

Sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, Senate Bill 97 attracted substantial attention during previous committee hearings. Most of the bill’s proponents testified that it would insulate Montana’s court system against the imposition of Shariah law, the Islamic legal code.

The measure would also void contracts reliant on a legal system that “includes or incorporates a substantive or procedural law that would not grant the parties the fundamental liberties, rights and privileges” granted under the state and federal constitutions. It does, however, carve out an exemption for residents and businesses that enter into contracts subject to laws and jurisdictions outside the U.S.

Citing anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed during committee testimony earlier in the session, Democrats argued the measure was motivated by fear and that it was intended to target a specific religion in contradiction of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

“I think it sends a dangerous message to minority groups both here living in our state and wanting to come visit our state, just merely on the fact that you may be different,” Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said during Monday’s floor debate. “I truly believe this law is repugnant. I believe this is not who we are as Montanans.”

He also suggested the legislation could create problems for tribal governments within the state’s borders who have international agreements with tribal nations in Canada, including the Kootenai and Blackfeet tribes.

Arguing that the testimony on the bill was “peppered with anti-Muslim bigotry,” Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, offered an amendment that would have explicitly excluded portions of the Old Testament from being used in court. It was voted down 82-18.

Republican supporters of the bill noted that the language contains no reference to religion, however, and said it simply reaffirms the primacy of state and federal law.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussion about this being a religious law. I just don’t read it that way,” said Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton. “We are born with rights and government exists to protect those rights. We’re given those rights as individuals and that’s what makes us better than other countries that are based on collective rights.”

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying the bill in the House. During his closing after the debate, he pushed back against lawmakers who characterized the bill as xenophobic and reiterated that the bill would simply safeguard the primacy of rights guaranteed under state and federal law.

“Our constitution is constantly under assault. Some of it is small and subtle and some of it is major,” Tschida said.

Senate Bill 97 passed its second reading 56-44. The House will hold a final vote on the bill during its floor session Tuesday.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.