Legal challenges stack up over state vax law and federal mandate
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte receives a shot of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from pharmacist Drew Garton at a Walgreen's pharmacy in Helena in this April 1, 2021, file photo. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)
| October 29, 2021 1:00 PM
Two breaking legal developments on the vaccination front occurred in quick succession Friday. Another group of Montana health care providers asked to join a federal lawsuit just hours before Attorney General Austin Knudsen announced Montana’s role in a multi-state legal challenge against President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring COVID-19 vaccination for federal contractors.
First up, the Montana Nurses Association filed a motion asking to join a lawsuit challenging Montana’s new vaccination discrimination law. If granted, the motion would expand the scope of the legal challenge originally filed against the state by the Montana Medical Association and a cohort of health care providers and patients in September.
MNA’s brief argues that House Bill 702, passed by the Legislature this spring, exposes nurses to the same risks as doctors already involved in the litigation. The initial complaint requested that HB 702 be ruled invalid and unenforceable in hospital facilities and physician offices. MNA wants to expand that list to include all Montana health care settings where nurses work, including federally qualified health centers, state and local jails and correctional facilities, and schools.
“Success by [the Montana Medical Association] on its complaint will provide relief for the Nurses in only some of these settings,” the motion says, “but will not afford relief in many of the places the Nurses work and in which they are equally entitled to the protections of federal law and the Montana Constitution.”
The motion to intervene was filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, where MMA’s case originally appeared. Speaking with Montana Free Press Friday morning, Montana Nurses Association CEO Vicky Byrd said the motion was designed to bring nurses’ “advocacy and their voice and what we do every day” into the lawsuit.
“Because this House bill includes all immunizations, not just COVID, that significantly alters our work environment, the ability for the employer to provide us a safe work environment, for us to work in a safe work environment, and to keep our patients safe,” Byrd said.
A spokesperson for Knudsen’s office said via email Friday that MNA’s motion to intervene “doesn’t change the fact that the lawsuit is meritless.” The office filed a motion to dismiss the case on Oct. 21, contesting all MMA’s claims and asserting that HB 702 “works within the existing anti-discrimination and public health law structure.” The motion argued that the new law protects medical privacy and extends the protections of the Montana Human Rights Act to include vaccination status, and further alleges that MMA’s complaint “evinces a troubling desire by parts of Montana’s medical community to violate the fundamental rights of Montanans.”
In a separate development, Knudsen announced this morning that he and attorneys general in nine other states have filed a lawsuit challenging Biden’s vaccine requirement for federal contractors. The announcement claims the executive order constitutes “an unlawful usurpation of states’ police powers” and violates numerous federal laws as well as the U.S. Constitution. Knudsen’s announcement said his office has “heard directly from employees and businesses across Montana” about concerns that Biden’s order will restrict their ability to provide services to their communities.
“President Biden’s dictate attempting to force injections on employees at federally contracted businesses via executive order is illegal and a gross overreach into the lives of Montanans,” Knudsen said in the announcement. “Workers in our state don’t lose their rights just because their company happens to do some work for the federal government.”
Alex Sakariassen is a reporter for Montana Free Press, a nonprofit news organization based in Helena.