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A legal request by the Sidney-based Netzer Law Office to temporarily block Montana’s vaccine non-discrimination law was shot down by a district court judge in Richland County Tuesday, the first significant action taken by the court in one of two lawsuits challenging House Bill 702.

Netzer filed the lawsuit against the state last October, alleging that the new law prevents the firm from implementing measures to protect its employees and clients from COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases. The firm further argued that HB 702 prevents it from fulfilling its obligation under the Montana Constitution to provide a “clean and healthful environment” for employees and clients, and that the law would inflict economic harm by pulling the firm’s focus from clients to pandemic-related issues. 

In response to the litigation, the state — represented by Attorney General Austin Knudsen — has maintained its position that discrimination based on vaccination status should be prohibited.

“No Montanan should be forced by their employer to receive a vaccine they do not want,” wrote Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson for Knudsen, in an email statement responding to Tuesday’s ruling. 

In denying the petition, District Court Judge Olivia Rieger noted that while Netzer had established standing for its claim of economic injury, the firm “has not suffered the type of harm required for a preliminary injunction.” Rieger also affirmed Netzer’s argument that the state Constitution’s environmental protections extend to indoor environments — a direct contrast to a legal opinion issued by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy last month. Molloy’s order came in a HB 702 challenge brought by the Montana Medical Association and other plaintiffs, and denied a similar environmental health claim because, Molloy wrote, “the legislative history and text of the provision indicates that it applies exclusively to the natural environment.”

Rieger stated that while the court affirms the protection extends to indoor environments, nothing in HB 702 violates that protection, as “it is an impossibility for that right to depend solely on a person’s vaccination status.” Even so, Joel Krautter, a Netzer attorney who is also representing the firm, specifically noted Rieger’s inclusion of indoor spaces as constitutionally protected environments in an emailed statement Tuesday.

“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling in this first round, but were encouraged by the court’s determination that the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment applies to both the indoors and outdoors,” Krautter wrote. “We will be reviewing the decision further as we identify our next steps.”

Netzer’s legal challenge remains active in Richland County District Court pending further filings and a final ruling from Rieger.

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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...