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Montana state courts are blocking 2 attempts to restrict transgender people's rights

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Republican leaders in Montana are seething as state courts are blocking two attempts to restrict the rights of transgender people. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports conservatives are complaining that the courts are politically biased.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: After 16 years of Democratic governors vetoing their legislative priorities, Republicans in Montana finally saw one of their own elected governor in 2020. The following year, they pursued an agenda they knew the new governor would support, including making it harder to change one's gender on a birth certificate. Jeff Laszloffy with the Montana Family Foundation testified in support.

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JEFF LASZLOFFY: The word sex actually means something. It's binary, either male or female, and it's encoded in our DNA. The term gender means nothing.

RAGAR: The National Institutes of Health define gender as socially constructed roles that influence how people perceive themselves. And the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association say gender-affirming care is best for the physical and mental health of trans people. Republicans also passed a ban on trans women and girls competing in interscholastic sports. Governor Greg Gianforte signed both bills.

Democratic Senator Diane Sands called the 2021 legislative session one of the most challenging for LGBTQ advocates in decades. She's the first openly gay lawmaker in Montana and has served for 17 years.

DIANE SANDS: For the legislature to continue to make their life a living hell through these bills that are denying them equal protection of the law and for young students to say that you can't even participate in athletics is extremely painful.

RAGAR: Two people sued the state over the birth certificate law. The state health department used to allow people to change their gender by filling out a form. The new law requires people to prove in court that they've had gender-affirming surgery. Plaintiff Amelia Marquez, a 27-year-old trans woman from Billings, spoke at a pride event in Helena.

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AMELIA MARQUEZ: So let's do it. Let's continue to fight for our rights, Montana. And I will make sure that I continue to fight as hard as you continue to fight for everybody else.

RAGAR: Marquez and another unnamed plaintiff argue the law violates their state constitutional rights to privacy and equal protection. In May, a judge temporarily blocked the law while the case is hashed out in court. But the state health department didn't return to their previous practice, instead enacting a new rule that effectively banned trans people from changing their birth certificates. Judge Michael Moses, who's presiding over the case, was not happy at a recent hearing after the rule was put in place.

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MICHAEL MOSES: If we are simply going to circumvent orders of the court where the court finds, preliminarily, a violation of the Constitution, that's not what justice is all about.

RAGAR: The health department now says it intends to comply, but disagrees with the order. The same week, another state court partially struck down the other law, which bans trans Montanans from competing in women's school sports. The judge found it violates the state university system's right to regulate higher education. But the law still stands for K-12 trans student-athletes.

The losses have increased tension between Montana Republicans and the state's judiciary. State Senator Greg Hertz called the order blocking the birth certificate rule judicial activism. He said judges aligning themselves with Democrats continues to be a constant theme. Republicans dominate Montana's legislature and executive branch and consistently point to the judicial branch as a roadblock to their priorities.

GREG HERTZ: It looks as if they may not be following all their rules, and they're not following state statute, so do we let them continue to do that?

RAGAR: Montana's next legislative session begins in January. Proposals to further regulate the judiciary are expected. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylee Ragar
Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.