On Friday afternoon, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte announced he signed a bill that bars transgender women from playing in women's sports.
The legislation was one of the most controversial of the session. Bill sponsor Whitefish Republican Rep. John Fuller said it was meant to protect women's sports, while opponents argued it was harmful to transgender Montanans and put the state at risk for the loss of federal funding and the chance to host NCAA championship events.
Gianforte's office did not immediately respond to an email Friday seeking comment on why he signed the legislation.
In a press conference last week, he said it was an issue that "evokes a lot of passion on both sides."
"I've met with transgender students, I've met with transgender parents, I've met with women athletes. We've been taking input from all sides of this," Gianforte said then.
From its first hearing, the legislation drew forceful opposition, with those speaking against the bill lining up in-person and virtually. A tally of phone and electronic messages kept by the Legislature shows that 2,474 people advocated against the bill, while 1,296 supported it.
In the days before its passage, transgender Montanans, athletes and allies gathered on a blustery day in front of the Capitol to call on lawmakers to defeat the bill. It passed with support from some majority Republicans and opposition from all Democrats and a handful of GOP lawmakers.
During the session, more than 250 national and state businesses signed onto a letter opposing HB 112 and other legislation targeting transgender Montanans. And in response to bills like Montana's and similar legislation around the country, the NCAA released a statement saying it supports transgender athletes and that championship games would be held only in locations "free of discrimination.”
An amendment put on the bill would invalidate the law if the federal government raised concerns it discriminated against transgender athletes and put Montana's Title IX funding, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars, at risk. But it would only fall after what Fuller called a "full and complete" adjudication, meaning the law would stand if Montana disputed the federal government ruling. That process could take years.
An executive order signed by Democratic President Joe Biden said the federal government will enforce the protections of Bostock v. Clayton County, a case that found Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Throughout the legislative process, Fuller defended his legislation from those who called it discriminatory.
"You have a human right to not be discriminated against, but we do not have a sports right," Fuller said in a conference committee at the end of the session.
He also previously pushed back against concerns over loss of federal funding or the economy fallout from possibly losing sporting events.
"If the NCAA wishes to make a statement, you notice that statement said nothing about any authority or attempting to deprive (Montana) of any post-season opportunity," Fuller said during the session.
Shawn Reagor, program director with the Montana Human Rights Network, said even though the legislation is signed, work to oppose the bills isn't finished.
"This bill unfairly targets trans youth and puts millions of federal education dollars at risk. It is unnecessary and harmful policy that comes at a massive cost to the state," Reagor said in a statement. "Montana has made it clear that we do not want HB 112, nor any of the other anti-LGBTQ bills the governor has signed this year. A broad and diverse coalition of organizations and leaders will continue to fight for equality for all people, including trans youth, and will not let this bill stop us. We must do better for our LGBTQ community, and we will — in the Legislature, in court and at the ballot box."
Alex Rate, a lawyer for ACLU Montana, said Friday evening it's too early to know what legal challenge might come after Gianforte signed HB 112. But Rate pointed to a similar law that Idaho passed but is now on hold after a court struck it down. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard that case this week. Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who carried that state's bill, testified during Montana's legislative session in support of HB 112.
"Once again, the Legislature is spending taxpayer dollars to pass patently unconstitutional legislation," Rate said. "It was just last year that a district court in Idaho held that a very similar trans sports ban was unconstitutional and violated the equal protection clause, and it's the same here in Montana."
Rate also said Montana's state Constitution has a stronger right to privacy than other states', as well as the U.S. Constitution.
"Regardless of what happens in the federal courts, we believe that legal redress is available to transgender Montanans under our state Constitution," Rate said.
The Associated Press reported that more than 20 states have debated similar bills, and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia have passed them. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, vetoed a bill there but then enacted the policy through executive order. Another bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum in North Dakota.