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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Health department says it will comply with transgender birth certificate ruling

The state health department says it intends to comply with a court order requiring the agency to reinstate a process that allows transgender Montanans to amend their birth certificates. The state previously defied the order.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses released a written order Monday calling the state’s reasoning for its previous noncompliance “demonstrably ridiculous.” He said there will be consequences if the health department doesn’t comply.

Moses chastised the department from the bench last week for enacting a new rule that effectively banned trans residents from amending their gender markers despite an order from Moses last spring blocking a related law.

The state health department said Moses’s original order was unclear and left a “regulatory gap.” In his order Monday, Moses wrote the department was clearly supposed to return to the status quo, which was a rule enacted in 2017 that allows for birth certificate amendments.

Moses said as much during a hearing last week and issued a verbal order. The state health department responded that its rule regulating birth certificate amendments would stay in place and it was awaiting a written order. The state changed its position Monday after that order was released.

Agency spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the health department intends to comply with the order, “despite disagreeing with it.”

University of Montana Law Professor Craig Cowie says the judge has options to enforce his order.

“He said, I believe, that we are approaching the point where if the agency continues to disregard his order, they will be willfully disobeying him.”

The court could require the state health department to pay a fine, pay the plaintiffs legal fees or even require jail time for whoever is deemed responsible for the disobedience if the state is found in contempt of court.

Cowie says compliance shouldn’t be up for debate and this situation is further evidence of rising tensions between Montana’s three independent branches of government.

“It is sort of a fundamental precept of our democracy that we abide by lawful process.”

Cowie said the state has legal avenues to appeal the block on the rule. A final ruling on the state’s regulation of birth certificate amendments is still pending.

Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.