Freedom, equality, privacy and justice are values that many Montanans hold dear. Indeed, we are taught from a very young age that these concepts represent the basic foundation of our democracy.
While these are the values that should guide our lawmakers as they return to Helena for the 2021 Montana legislative session, we’ve already seen multiple bills filed that would harm people and erode our basic civil rights and liberties.
Here are some issues of freedom and equality that are at stake in our state this legislative session.
We must protect the the fundamental right to an abortion. The complex and often difficult decision to have an abortion is deeply personal, and we cannot presume to know every person’s individual circumstances or needs. This decision should be left to the pregnant person, not politicians. Efforts to ban or create barriers to constitutionally protected abortions are an attack on the basic right to privacy. The government has no place between doctors and their patients, and Montanans should not have to justify their personal medical decisions to the government.
We must fight the expansion of President Trump’s draconian anti-immigrant policies and practices. Immigrants are part of our families and communities and should be able to go about their daily lives without living in fear of local police. Some lawmakers this session want to force local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. This erodes the trust between law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve, making us all less safe. In fact, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and law enforcement leaders from across the country have all adopted positions opposing local entanglement with immigration enforcement on the ground that it harms public safety.
We must ensure the equality and dignity of trans youth. Trans, two-spirit, and nonbinary youth deserve to be treated the same as everybody else. We know that when young people are supported by their families and communities, they thrive. When trans youth are not supported, they have worse health outcomes, lower self-esteem, and higher rates of suicide. Trans people deserve respect, equality, support, and freedom to live their lives. Given how much anti-trans laws and attitudes harm (and sometimes kill) young people, it is unconscionable that Montana lawmakers would consider supporting bills that infringe on the rights and freedoms of trans youth. Yet we’ve already seen two bills introduced, including legislation that would ban young trans athletes from participating in athletic activities consistent with their gender and legislation that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth.
We must preserve the right to vote. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right upon which all our civil liberties rest. Too many people in Montana — disproportionately Indigenous people — experience systematic voter suppression or disenfranchisement. Indigenous people and others who face barriers to voting must have political equality and fair access to the ballot box. Still, lawmakers are trying to shorten the window for voter registration, which will make it harder for people to get to the polls. Montana should be doing everything it can to expand access to vote, not suppress it.
We expect to see more bills introduced this session that will be an affront to Montanans’ rights and freedoms. When our lawmakers forget (or ignore) our basic values, it's up to the people to hold them accountable.
Freedom, equality, privacy and justice are not partisan values — they are the foundation of our government. We all must remind lawmakers that "we the people" means everyone.
Caitlin Borgmann is executive director of the ACLU of Montana.