Capitol Notebook Edition 

Self-professed Christians lobbying at the Legislature hit a new low when they testified last week against a bill by Sen. Carol Williams that would make strangling a partner or family member a felony offense.

Current state law defines domestic assaults as being possible only between a man and a woman. Senate Bill 283, sponsored by Williams, a Missoula Democrat, would eliminate the gender distinction and impose fines up to $50,000 and prison terms up to five years for any person who causes injury by choking another.

Williams says U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that choking victims are 10 times more likely to eventually be killed by their assailants. If they survive, she adds, domestic abuse victims who are strangled often report a shocking array of physical and psychological ailments. Domestic batterers in Montana are now typically charged only with misdemeanors until their third offenses.

But Christian lobbyists, who also inexplicably see Satan in another legislative proposal to institute all-day kindergarten, argued that gay couples don’t need equal protection under the domestic abuse law, apparently because they’re condemned to hell anyway.

Rachel Roberts, representing the Montana Family Foundation, called SB 283 “the epitome of a designer crime.” And Harris Himes of the Montana Family Coalition alleged that gay activists are using it as part of a stealth campaign to undermine Constitutional Initiative 96, which says marriage is only between a man and a woman.

While religious zealots urging lawmakers to kill the bill and thus deny protections to straight couples because of their dislike of gays is repugnant enough, SB 283 is also apparently under fire from the Montana Department of Corrections.

Fiscal documents compiled by the department claim the bill would cost an astounding $2.9 million over the next two years because more batterers, both straight and gay, would be incarcerated. But Williams smells a rat.

“I’m afraid they’re doing an end run here,” she says. “I think it’s the bill they don’t support. They’re making an assumption they don’t know anything about. I know it’s hanky-panky.”

A review of other bills that would increase penalties for various crimes adds to Williams’ suspicions. For example, a proposal by Rep. Joey Jayne, D-Arlee, to make abuse of the elderly and the developmentally disabled a felony is expected to cost the state nothing because corrections officials say they can’t predict if offenders would pay fines or serve jail time.

“I think they are people who are not for this bill who are using the fiscal note to kill it,” Williams says. And that’s if God doesn’t do it first.”

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