Six businesses and organizations and one individual this week sued the Missoula City-County Board of Health and Health Officer Ellen Leahy, claiming the Board of Health violated their unalienable rights when it adopted additional rules on Dec. 17 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday repealing most of former Gov. Steve Bullock’s COVID-19 directives, specifically those limiting the hours of operation and number of people allowed in establishments such as bars and restaurants.
Gianforte’s order leaves it up to businesses to develop appropriate policies. However, local governments – counties, cities and reservations – can enforce stricter practices. Some have, including Gallatin, Missoula and Lewis and Clark counties.
A statewide mask mandate remains in place, but Gianforte has hinted that that would also be repealed, once the Legislature passes business liability protections.
Attorney Quentin Rhoades filed the lawsuit on behalf of Stand Up Montana; Bronwen Llewellyn-Littlewolf; Crosspoint Community Church Inc.; Accu-Arms LLC; Bi-Lo Foods Inc.; Kingdon Enterprises LLC; and the Lolo Community Club.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Missoula City-County Health Department said in a statement that it had yet to be served the complaint.
“The health officer and health board have worked diligently pursuant to (the law) to enact fair and reasonable restrictions to protect Missoula County from the spread of COVID-19. Sadly, we have lost 60 Missoula County residents from COVID-related deaths, which reflects the devastating impact of this virus on our community, and the continued need for public health measures aimed at curbing it,” the department statement said.
“No one has enjoyed this aspect of the pandemic, including the health department, but it is the statutory duty of the health officer and health board to stop the spread of communicable disease, and it is a duty we take seriously in the face of a deadly pandemic.”
As of Wednesday, Missoula County had 48 new cases adding to a total of 349 active cases. Montana has 4,841 active cases and 1,100 deaths since March 2020.
In the lawsuit, the groups called Montana’s public health system “archaic.” They oppose having to wear or enforce the wearing of face coverings, restrictions to business hours and gathering sizes, and “denial of human and family contact.”
The groups say their unalienable rights under the Montana Constitution have been violated, in addition to their rights of privacy, free exercise of religion and freedom of expression.
They also accuse Leahy and the Health Board of encouraging people to report businesses or individuals that don’t comply with the order, saying the Board is responsible for “turning neighbors against neighbors and dividing the community.”
Claiming COVID-19 has a low mortality rate approximately equal to that of a seasonal flu and that 99% of those younger than 70 survive, the groups assert that the science doesn’t support restricting individual freedom.
However, the groups say, businesses have suffered irreparable harm. So they want the judge to stop the Health Department from enforcing county disease safeguards, and they want the county to pay all court costs.
Stand Up Montana is a new Bozeman-based nonprofit organization, founded in November by Cortney Brook Bent, according to a Secretary of State filing. The organization’s website says it was created “to support the civil action against Governor Bullock and the MT DPHHS to end all current COVID restrictions.”
The Stand Up Montana website also states, “What started as a small Facebook group quickly spiraled into large group of over 2500 members from around the state of Montana, but primarily focused in the Gallatin Valley. Join us in the fight against tyranny. Together we are standing up for Montana as Gallatin Unmasked.”
However, the court filing states Stand Up Montana has 400 members. The organization’s Facebook group started on Oct. 19 is private but states it has 282 followers. Gallatin Unmasked has 417 followers.
Crosspoint Community Church on Mullan Road has attracted attention since October 2018 when pastor Bruce Speer posted campaign signs for candidates Matt Rosendale, Greg Gianforte, Brad Tschida, and Adam Hertz on the church grounds. To keep their nonprofit status, churches are required by the Internal Revenue Service to abstain from backing political candidates or initiatives.
Speer cited a 2017 executive order from former President Trump limiting action the Department of the Treasury could take against religious organizations.
“We are a church that has taken a position on what we believe is a key moral truth and that is pro-life,” Speer told KGVO radio in 2018. “We have allowed pro life candidates to put yard signs in our church property advertising their campaign.”
In May 2020, Speer continued to defy IRS laws, hosting a forum for candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives. But by September, Speer had scaled things back slightly. The election signs this time had no candidate names, only saying “Vote only for pro-life candidates.”
Some members of the Crosspoint Community Church showed up to Missoula Black Lives Matter protests this summer, saying they were there to protect buildings and statues from vandalism.
“It’s our understanding that Black Lives Matter is showing up here and they’re notorious for creating a lot of anarchy and destruction,” Speer told the Missoulian in July.
Kingdon Enterprises operates coffee kiosks in Missoula. The owner, Warren Kingdon, moved to Lolo in 2018 and started the company after retiring as a pharmacist in Costa Mesa, Calif.
The lawsuit says Bronwen Llewellyn-Littlewolf resides in Missoula County. A web search comes up with a LinkedIn site that lists her home as Pocatello, Idaho, so she may also be a newcomer.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.