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Ravalli County retools its obscenity law



A Christian law firm in Florida has rewritten Ravalli County’s anti-obscenity ordinances, and county commissioners are considering adopting them as law.

Last week Ravalli County commissioners admitted that a lawyer with the Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm based in Orlando, Fla., had not only suggested the anti-obscenity ordinances be rewritten, but actually wrote them himself.

The ordinances have a long, costly, and embattled history in Ravalli County. Voters there approved three ordinances back in 1994, but the new laws were immediately challenged in court by a group of local citizens. The court eventually threw out the laws as unconstitutional, prompting Ravalli County to appeal the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. That appeal is still pending.

Meanwhile, county commissioners have spent a considerable amount of time looking for an attorney to represent the county before the Supreme Court. They’ve also spent a considerable sum of taxpayers’ money litigating the case, about $76,000 since January of 2001.

Now commissioners appear to be muddying the waters further with a rewrite of the ordinances that the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on.

Commissioner Jack Atthowe, who voted with his two colleagues in their decision to appeal and in the decision to hire of the Orlando law firm, says he now draws the line at this latest effort.

“I don’t think we should spend any more money on this,” Atthowe says. “Whatever we do we’re going to get sued because the laws are still unconstitutional.”

Even the Liberty Counsel, the county’s pro bono law firm, admits as much, Atthowe says, which is what prompted the ordinance rewrite.

Atthowe says Liberty Counsel attorney Joel Oster, recognizing that the ordinances won’t withstand a Supreme Court ruling, rewrote the laws anticipating the Supreme Court’s rejection. The court could rule on a second issue of concern raised by the lower courts: whether counties can enact ordinances stricter than state law.

Atthowe says that rewriting laws in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s possible rejection is foolhardy and a waste of time and taxpayer money. “This is all based on hope of what the Supreme Court will do,” he says. “Why should the people of Ravalli County go along with all this? This is going way beyond what the voters intended when they passed this thing.”

The Liberty Counsel has taken the wrong avenue, Atthowe says, by rewriting the laws to make them conform more with state, not county, anti-obscenity laws. “Every way they tweak [the ordinances] they make them a little more stringent than state law,” Atthowe says. “If [Liberty Counsel] wants to tweak the state laws, why don’t they go to the Legislature?”


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