MISSOULA, Montana—A far-right pastor with a history of alleged bullying has a new hustle.
His plan: To publicly shame people who report violations of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to the government by publishing their names and faces on billboards. Or at least try.
“We know the names of quite a few of these snitches,” Jordan “J.D.” Hall claimed in an interview with The Daily Beast, though he refused to disclose how he might have obtained them.
Hall—of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney, a town of around 6,000 in remote northeast Montana—announced the “Bad Neighbors Project” a few days before the election by way of the Montana Daily Gazette. But the outlet amounts to little more than his very own far-right site, and the Project appears to be helmed by Gideon Knox Group, a consulting group run also run by Hall.
In other words, the whole thing looks like something between a dubious PR scheme and a potentially massive privacy risk in a state with one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
The passion project, such as it is, emerged in response to an Oct. 23 directive issued by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The order called for the state health department’s consumer complaint form—typically used to report foodborne illnesses like Salmonella—to be used by the public to report violations of state pandemic directives, such as the indoor mask requirement for businesses and events.
In his announcement for the Bad Neighbors Project, Hall called the mask order “an unconstitutional mandate that violates the basic human right of bodily autonomy” and claimed the health department consumer complaint form constitutes a “snitching portal.”
According to Hall, the plan was to use Freedom of Information Act requests—which apply only to federal agencies, though presumably he was referring to the state Right to Know law—and documents obtained “one way or another” from local health departments to collect names of those who file consumer complaints.
Names and faces will then allegedly be placed on billboards across the state with the heading, “These are bad neighbors who reported you for exercising your rights,” he claimed.
But it’s far from clear Hall will even be able to obtain such information from the state authorities.
Montana Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt told The Daily Beast the department “condemns any threats against public health officials or members of the public.” And he added that “DPHHS has an obligation to protect personal health and other private information and conducts thorough legal reviews in response to all records requests.“
While Montana has strong transparency laws for public information, the state constitution also enshrines a right to privacy that trumps disclosure if individual privacy exceeds the public’s right to know.
For his part, Hall said that the consumer complaint process should be transparent, and that just as businesses have a right to know “who’s peeing on their toilet seats or shoplifting,” they should have a right to know who is reporting them for health violations.
Hall also argued the outgoing governor, who just lost a U.S. Senate bid, was “deputizing Montanans against Montanans” after sheriffs in 38 of Montana’s 56 counties refused to enforce his mask directive. He said he had no problem with the consumer complaint form being used for public-health threats like Salmonella because health laws are set by the state legislature. But he claimed Bullock’s pandemic directives—issued with the governor’s emergency powers under state emergency laws—“are not laws.”
The pastor was also skeptical about how dangerous the pandemic really is despite plenty of recent days with over 1,000 deaths nationally, and even denies the state’s lack of ICU beds in hospitals is anything new.
“You have Governor Bullock touring them like Kim Jong Un at a potato factory,” he told The Daily Beast.
Montana reported its first COVID-19 cases on March 15, and Gov. Bullock enacted a stay-at-home order closing all non-essential businesses starting on March 28. The order expired on April 26, and according to The New York Times, Montana had the largest percent change in average daily cases since reopening of any state—2,267 percent—by July.
A mask requirement for indoor and some outdoor gatherings came later that month. Restaurants, bars, and some schools are still open, however, while the state has the fourth-highest infection rate in the country, and hospitals are overwhelmed.
Hall, meanwhile, is no stranger to controversy, having feuded with fellow Christians for years through his blog Pulpit & Pen.
In 2017, Hall was dragged out of a North Dakota church by congregants after loudly protesting that a female pastor was allowed to speak, claiming scripture does not allow for women to preach. The following year, Hall withdrew his church from the Southern Baptist Conference, the world’s largest Protestant denomination, for “betraying the Gospel in the name of political correctness at the SBC-sponsored MLK50 event.”
But Hall’s true claim to infamy came in 2014 for a public clash with fellow Baptist preacher Ergun Caner that escalated to Hall fighting with Caner’s teenage son Braxton on Twitter. Braxton died by suicide soon after, and Hall issued a letter of repentance.
Hall told The Daily Beast that Braxton’s suicide shouldn’t be held over his head, and that he hopes the Bad Neighbors Project billboards invite shame, not violence.
Still, his reputation preceded his latest undertaking.
“He’s someone who really craves power and authority,” said former Sidney Herald editor Amy Efta, whose introduction to Hall came at a town hall meeting in January where he demanded local politicians declare the county a sanctuary against abortion.
“He was really inciting a militia-mindset during that meeting, and I find him to be such a dangerous person in that regard,“ Efta said. “He’s created a cult-like following around himself.”
Bullock’s health directives, mild as they are, may not be around much longer. The conservative wing of the Montana Republican Party captured every statewide and federal office in Tuesday’s election while also increasing their legislative majority, turning Montana from a purple state known for bipartisan compromise into a deep-red stronghold.
The incoming Republican governor, Rep. Greg Gianforte, said in August his pandemic response would put the onus of responsibility on individuals instead of state government. A leaked draft of the Montana GOP’s legislative agenda under Gianforte lists pandemic objectives such as rolling back emergency powers for the governor and local governments and classifying all Montana workers as essential.
The state’s new attorney general, currently a county attorney near Sidney who opposes the mask mandate, told far-right outlet Northwest Liberty News he would “err in the side of freedom” if forced to defend a mask mandate in court.
Until then, Hall was left to pursue his scheme, however half-baked.
“I guess it’s up to the citizens to police ourselves, and part of that policing is our billboard effort,” Hall said.