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

Netzer attorney Joel Krautter, a former Republican member of the Montana House, is representing his firm in the lawsuit, which names the state of Montana, Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Commissioner of Labor and Industry Laurie Esau as defendants.

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

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Emilee Cantrell, spokesperson for Knudsen’s office, issued this statement via email in response to the lawsuit: “Attorney General Knudsen will defend Montana’s law. No one should be treated differently because of their vaccination status.”

The law in question, House Bill 702, passed the Legislature on predominantly party lines this spring and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 7 with several gubernatorial amendments included. The bill bars government agencies and private businesses from denying goods, services, employment or educational opportunities on the basis of vaccination status. Since its passage, the law has created challenges for schools, county officials, health care providers and businesses attempting to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Last month, the Montana Medical Association, alongside a collection of health care providers and individual patients, filed a legal challenge against the law in U.S. District Court in Missoula. That complaint claims 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 levels similar claims that HB 702 legally prohibits the firm from taking steps to protect its employees, clients and prospective clients from COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases, as the law applies to all vaccines. The complaint further notes that some of those employees and clients are elderly and immunocompromised, placing them at greater health risk. Under the Montana Constitution, those individuals have a right to a safe and healthful environment, and HB 702 impedes Netzer’s ability to maintain such an environment, the complaint says.

Krautter said his firm views HB 702 as not only a threat to individual health, but “a huge invasion on the rights of private businesses.” 

“We do think the law is dangerous to us being able to protect our workplace and our employees and our clients, potential clients, anyone that comes into our offices, not just against COVID but against any kind of disease that there are vaccinations for,” Krautter said. “That’s what is so scary about this law, in my reading of it, is there are no sideboards on it.”

Netzer is asking Richland County District Court to declare HB 702 unconstitutional and grant both preliminary and permanent injunctions barring its enforcement.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...