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Bills on parental rights, abortion and pronouns heard in Senate committees Monday


Bills on parental rights, abortion and pronouns heard in Senate committees Monday

Mar 27, 2023 | 9:49 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
Bills on parental rights, abortion and pronouns heard in Senate committees Monday
Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 27, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, is getting a second bite at the apple for her parental rights bill.

Manzella said in her introduction on Senate Bill 518 it was a remake of a previously introduced bill that failed on a tied vote on the Senate floor in early March.

SB 518 was one of two parental rights bills heard Monday morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the other coming from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings.

The committee also heard Seekins-Crowe’s bill that was the legislature’s second attempt at passing Legislative Referendum 131, which failed at the ballot box last fall, with new language that a parent could reject medical care for an infant not expected to survive; as well as a bill from Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, to permit misgendering of transgender children in school.

On SB 518, Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, asked how Manzella was able to skirt the legislative rule that says a lawmaker can’t bring the same bill twice, to which Manzella said the filing fee associated with the bill increased from $5 to $6.

Under the bill, governmental entities, like schools, would not be able to interfere with the rights of parents in the upbringing, education and healthcare of children unless it is generally considered as part of the government’s compelling interest, Manzella explained.

Five of the seven Republican members on the Senate Judiciary are co-sponsors on the bill. Six were sponsors on Manzella’s previous bill, with Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, not joining the others in the new iteration. Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, didn’t sponsor either version of the bill and voted against SB 337 on the floor.

Amendments that were included in the previous bill included making an opt-out available for human sexuality lessons, instead of requiring parents to opt-in.

“We have eliminated a lot of the issues surrounding curriculum, and we’ve tried to zero in on parental rights,” she said.

Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and the Montana Family Foundation were among proponents. Opponents included Montana Medical Association and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, among others.

Proponents said this bill is needed because parents are sometimes left in the dark. Opponents said the legislation could impact child victims of family abuse who may need access to rape kits or other medical care without parental consent.

One section that did not change from the previous version of the bill would permit the misgendering of transgender students. This can happen when a transgender student is referred to by a different gender than how they identify or be “dead named,” meaning referred to by an incorrect name, often the name given to them at birth.

Shawn Reagor with the Montana Human Rights Network said this bill was about parental rights for some parents, and not others.

“This bill is about the government deciding which rights should and should not be respected, and it does so with a horrendous bias,” he said.

Manzella’s bill was heard just before Ler’s bill allowing children to misgender other students in school. House Bill 361 passed the House 66-33.

Emerson Poole, a transgender student, said they didn’t want to be there to testify against the bill.

“It’s spring break. I should be eating cereal with my little brother and watching cartoons. But here I am,” they said. “Here I am to do everything in my power to stop this bill from passing. Here I am to represent the children whose lives are unwillingly in your hands. Here I am to at least try.”

Poole spoke to the increased risk for suicide for transgender youth and how using chosen pronouns can cut that risk significantly. They said they’re not the first to point these statistics out to the committee.

“Are our lives really less important than passing this unnecessary bill?” Poole asked.

Opponents also included Poole’s father, the ACLU of Montana, the Montana Human Rights Network and others. Proponents included the Montana Family Foundation and Mom’s for Liberty for Yellowstone County.

Chairman Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, asked Dr. Catherine Lowe of the Montana Chapter of the American Association of Pediatrics, an opponent to the bill, if it was a “lie to call an XX a he.”

Lowe responded that people can choose their pronouns.

Robin Turner with the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence spoke to how the bill could open up schools to federal Title IX violations, as transgender students are protected under sex discrimination, if it creates a hostile environment for the victim and such harassment is encouraged, tolerated, not adequately addressed or ignored by school employees.

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, asked Ler if his bill was about religious beliefs.

“You don’t want the people that have a religious belief that people are male or female with certain chromosomes, to be required to break their religious beliefs for someone else,” Usher said, to which Ler confirmed that was correct.

Two abortion bills were heard on Monday, Seekins-Crowe’s in Senate Judiciary, but also a bill from Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, in Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety in the afternoon.

Regier’s House Bill 303 would allow healthcare staff to refuse care to patients based on conscience. Unlike other states like Illinois that have a similar law, healthcare staff would not have protocols around their refusals, like doing so in a timely manner or offering recommendations to where patients can receive that care elsewhere.

Regier, a registered nurse, asked a rhetorical question she’s asked previously when speaking on this bill: “Do we really want medical professionals working without a conscience?” The bill passed the House 63-35.

The protections for conscience-based service rejections do not extend to state-run facilities like the Montana State Hospital, Turner confirmed, who also testified in opposition to Regier’s bill.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, asked Dr. Nathan Allen of Billings Clinic, if by his reading of the bill, could an anti-war provider refuse a veteran treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Allen said a medical practitioner cannot be required to say anything more than “because of my conscience,” which means they don’t have to be consistent in how they exercise their conscience.

Neither committee immediately took executive action on the bills heard Monday.