The term "transgender" does not appear in the ballot language approved by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox for the "Montana Locker Room Privacy Act," the initiative that seeks to enact a statewide bathroom bill similar to the one that led to outrage and boycotts in North Carolina.
Of course, transgender people are at the center of the initiative, but its description obscures that fact from would-be petition signers and eventual voters, according to an ACLU of Montana brief to the Montana Supreme Court challenging the legality of the current ballot language. It's the opening salvo in the state's biggest fight yet between transgender rights and what the Christian-conservative Montana Family Foundation conceives as "privacy from persons of the opposite sex."
The foundation is turning to the ballot to enact its bathroom bill after the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected identical legislation earlier this year.
The measure was approved for signature collection by the Montana Department of Justice and Secretary of State last month. MFF needs about 26,000 signatures in 11 months to get the initiative on the ballot.
Civil rights groups are already combatting the effort. The ACLU petition argues that Fox improperly approved a ballot statement that "obscures, favorably frames, and misstates the impact of the initiative."
In particular, the group's legal director, Alex Rate, takes aim at the foundation's rhetoric suggesting the initiative is about protecting privacy—"a vague term describing something most people want." He argues that signature gatherers be required to present the initiative's concrete effects: that it would bar transgender people from using restrooms or changing facilities that match their gender identity and invalidate parts of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances already in effect in cities including Missoula. MFF did not return to a call for comment.
The ACLU also claims the ballot statement dramatically understates the initiative's economic consequences. The statement indicates that taxpayers will be on the hook for $545,699 to renovate and re-sign facilities, but the original fiscal note prepared for the Attorney General by the budget office accounts for just the first four years and warns that costs as high as $1 billion could be incurred should the state lose federal funding for universities or face civil lawsuits.
If the ACLU challenge is successful, signature gatherers with MFF will criss-cross the state pushing revised language. The Montana Human Rights Network is ready for them. This month the organization published a guide for activists encouraging them to ask certain questions of signature gatherers to be sure they are complying with state rules. Co-director Kim Abbott says the group is part of a coalition that is seeking to "be out in front talking about what this policy is."
"We don't think this is about increasing privacy or safety," she says. "It's simply about denying one community access."