Montana’s new vaccine discrimination law faces second court challenge

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A second lawsuit challenging Montana’s new vaccine discrimination law was filed in Richland County District Court on Tuesday by the Sidney-based law firm Netzer. The new complaint alleges that the law violates the state’s constitution by prohibiting the company from providing a safe and healthy environment for its employees and customers.

Netzer’s attorney, Joel Krautter, a former Republican member of Montana House, represents his cabinet in the lawsuit, which names Montana State Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Labor and Industry Commissioner Laurie Esau as defendants.

“I just think we’re at a scary point with our state right now that we’ve had our National Guard in our hospitals, our hospitals at or near capacity,” Krautter said by phone Wednesday. “And right now, you know, the employers’ hands are tied to respond to the situation.”

Knudsen’s office spokesperson Emilee Cantrell released this statement via email in response to the lawsuit: “Attorney General Knudsen will stand up for Montana law. No one should be treated any differently because of their immunization status.

The law in question, House Bill 702, was passed by the Legislature on a majority partisan basis this spring and was enacted by Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 7 with several gubernatorial amendments included. The bill prohibits government agencies and private companies from denying goods, services, employment or education opportunities on the basis of immunization status. Since its passage, the law has created challenges for schools, county officials, healthcare providers and businesses trying to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

Last month, the Montana Medical Association, along with an array of healthcare providers and individual patients, filed a legal challenge against the law in U.S. District Court in Missoula. This complaint says the law puts hospitals and private physicians at risk of violating federal health regulations and prevents providers from taking “reasonable precautions” to protect staff and vulnerable patients from exposure to COVID -19.

The lawsuit filed by Netzer this week bears similar claims that HB 702 legally prohibits the company from taking measures to protect its employees, customers and potential customers from COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases because the law applies to all vaccines. The complaint further notes that some of these employees and customers are elderly and immunocompromised, which puts them at greater risk to their health. Under the Montana Constitution, these people have the right to a safe and healthy environment, and HB 702 hinders Netzer’s ability to maintain such an environment, the complaint states.

Krautter said his company viewed HB 702 not only as a threat to individual health, but “a huge invasion of the rights of private companies.”

“We believe that the law is dangerous for us to be able to protect our workplace and our employees and our customers, potential customers, anyone who enters our offices, not only against COVID but against any type of disease for which there are vaccines. ” Krautter said. “That’s what’s so scary about this law, from my reading, is that there are no reservations about it.”

Netzer is asking the Richland County District Court to declare HB 702 unconstitutional and grant preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting its execution.

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