Missoula joins ACLU's suit to block Montana's 'bathroom bill'


The city of Missoula, a University of Montana student and a Missoula small-engine mechanic are among the plaintiffs in a new ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a ballot initiative that would dictate which bathrooms transgender people can use.

The suit seeks to keep I-183, the so-called Locker Room Privacy Act, off the 2018 ballot on the grounds that it discriminates against and "threatens the dignity, privacy and safety of transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex Montanans," ACLU Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann said during an Oct. 17 press conference in the Capitol rotunda.

The case was filed in state court in Cascade County, where one of the 11 plaintiffs resides.

The suit is LGBTQ advocates' primary legal effort to block I-183. It comes on the heels of a separate lawsuit by the ACLU that forced a rewrite of the proposed ballot language to make its intent more explicit and delayed pro-initiative signature gathering.

The ACLU is bringing the suit on behalf of seven transgender and gender-nonconforming Montanans and two unnamed parents on behalf of their trans daughter. Two of the plaintiffs live in Missoula, including Acton Siebel, a 38-year-old trans man who works as a mechanic, and Elliot Hobaugh, a 19-year-old UM student. I-183 would require Hobaugh to use women's facilities on campus, instead of the multi-occupancy unisex facilities that Hobaugh feels safe using, according to the suit.

Laws in Indiana and North Carolina have enacted similar restrictions on trans people, only to provoke public backlash that proved costly for those states' economies. In a press release, Missoula Mayor John Engen warned of the Montana initiative's financial implications for municipalities, which would be forced to provide sex-specific bathrooms at city facilities and become liable for violations of the law.

Missoula City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2010 protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment. I-183 would "eviscerate" those protections, the ACLU alleges in court documents.

Engen elaborated on potential costs in an Oct. 5 letter to the Montana League of Cities and Towns urging it to join the suit. The costs include signage, alterations to existing facilities and logistical issues regarding public events. The League of Cities and Towns, which represents 127 Montana municipalities, is considering whether to join the suit, executive director Tim Burton says.

Jeff Laszloffy, of the Montana Family Foundation, which sponsors I-183, has not responded to questions about the initiative for weeks. But he did acknowledge in a September radio program that the earlier ruling was a "speed bump" that forced supporters to restart signature gathering from scratch. Montanans for Locker Room Privacy must gather 25,000 signatures by June 2018 to qualify for the ballot.

In addition to the legal strategy, LGBTQ advocates have formed a coalition to oppose the initiative.

"You have nothing but stoked the fire of a movement that has been happening for decades," said SK Rossi, ACLU director of advocacy and policy, at the press conference. "We'll be on your phones, we'll be at your doors, we'll be outside protesting, and we will not stop speaking out for the transgender community in any way that we can."

Staff Reporter

Staff Reporter

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