While the Helena City Commission will oppose a proposed ballot initiative that would require people to use the bathroom designated for their sex at birth, commissioners haven't yet decided how that dissent will play out.
Missoula and Bozeman have both expressed their dissent by joining a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the constitutionality of the Montana Locker Room Initiative. The Montana League of Cities and Towns is considering whether to file a separate lawsuit of its own, according to Executive Director Tim Burton.
Though members of Helena's commission came to a consensus Wednesday to oppose the initiative, they want to consider partnering with other entities before joining the ACLU.
The ACLU said the ballot initiative targets people who are transgender and would not allow people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. The lawsuit asks the court to rule the initiative unconstitutional and prevent it from being on the 2018 ballot.
The ballot initiative was proposed by the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group based in Laurel. A similar measure the foundation supported was rejected by the Montana Legislature this session.
Jeff Laszloffy, President of the Montana Family Foundation, released a statement after the ACLU filed the suit.
“High school girls shouldn’t be forced to shower in front of a boy, even if he does think he’s a girl. Boys shouldn’t have to change clothes in front of a girl, even if she thinks she’s a boy. It’s just common sense. It’s tragic that the ACLU wants to disenfranchise thousands of Montana voters,” he said.
A representative of ACLU of Montana attended the city commission meeting on Wednesday, but the discussion on whether to join the group's lawsuit was brief. Commissioner Andres Haladay said the city attorney will draft a proposed resolution appointing the ACLU as special counsel, though that doesn't necessarily mean the commission will approve it.
“It’s not because the commission has decided to go that way. The only way the commission can vote is by resolution,” Haladay said. “In that intervening period, the city will be able to explore any other options.”
Haladay was unsure when the resolution would go to the commission for a vote, but he said the public would have a chance to comment at the meeting.
Helena Commissioner Dan Ellison said he was concerned about joining the ACLU lawsuit due to potential future conflicts. He said the city has a good relationship with the ACLU, but the two groups have disagreed on policies before. He said he’s worried that working relationship might be jeopardized if the city of Helena joins the lawsuit.
SK Rossi, who attended the meeting on behalf of the ACLU, said there would only be a conflict if the ACLU wanted to file suit against the city while the lawsuit is still in play.
Ellison said there could be other options to oppose the initiative, like the potential lawsuit by the Montana League of Cities and Towns.
Language in the initiative said it could cost cities and towns in Montana nearly $550,000 in the first four years.
"Long-term costs and legal fees for state and local governments, K-12 schools, and universities could be substantial, but are uncertain,” the initiative says.