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Bill allowing churches to serve as emergency shelters advances in Montana Legislature

A bill that would exempt churches from certain fire sprinkler requirements is headed to the Montana House after passing a third reading in the Senate Wednesday.

The legislation would allow churches to provide temporary overnight shelter without needing expensive upgrades to their fire sprinkler systems.

Republican Sen. Jeremy Trebas of Great Falls sponsored SB 195, which would lessen the requirements on certain fire sprinkler upgrades for up to 75 days a year.

“Churches should be able to open their doors without government interference, so they can accomplish their first amendment purposes and care for the homeless,” he said. “This helps people that otherwise might be cold out in the cold.”

In November, Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley said the City of Billings forced them to stop its church-based emergency program. As a result, the organization claims they were forced to turn away 50 families in the past two months.

”For almost 20 years, FPYV has partnered with more than 30 churches of all faiths and over 1,500 annual volunteers to lift more than 5,000 Montanans out of homelessness without any taxpayer expense,” executive director Lisa Donnot said in a statement about HB 195. “All that work is put at risk if the doors of willing churches are sealed shut by red tape.”

The city made public a letter to attorney Shane Colton, who contacted city leaders on behalf of FPYV. In it, Billings City Attorney Gina Dahl says she believes correspondence between the fire marshal and Family Promise was misconstrued and was not intended to be a “cease and desist order.”

“I want to assure you that the City of Billings does not want to shut down any program that provides such a valuable service to the community,” Dahl writes.

The letter goes on to say that buildings that had not been approved were asked to stop services until the fire marshal had the opportunity to inspect the areas.

City officials have reached out to Family Promise to set up a time to meet next week, to better work together going forward, according to the city.

Orlinda Worthington hosts “Morning Edition” weekdays on YPR. She brings 20 years of experience as Montana television news anchor, producer, and reporter.