Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) The City of Helena argued that a recently enacted ban on drag in public spaces should be enjoined – or halted – before the annual Montana Pride celebration slated to begin next week, telling a federal judge the law is too vague and presents an untenable choice as the city considers whether to grant a permit for the event.

“In making its permitting decision, the City itself is in the position of either choosing to infringe upon Plaintiff’s constitutional rights to freely express themselves (by denying the permit – something the City is not willing to do), or subject City employees to civil and criminal liability under the provisions of HB 359,” the city said in court filing Monday.

In court filings Monday in response to a request for a temporary restraining order against the law, the city said it did not dispute the claims made by plaintiffs challenging the law, which include the LGBTQ organization Montana Pride, “concerning the vague and overbroad nature of HB 359.” The city attorney requested the court enjoin the law, which was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May.

House Bill 359, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, bans Drag Story Hours in libraries and schools, tacks on potential fines for businesses that host drag events and bans drag in public spaces that could be seen by minors.

Montana Pride, which has hosted the statewide Pride event for eight years, joined the lawsuit which questions the constitutionality of HB 359 last week. Event organizer Kevin Hamm claimed the city told him it would be denying the permits as long as the drag ban law was in effect.

The event is slated to run from July 30- Aug. 6 and will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Pride held in Montana.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month by plaintiffs from around the state, names Butte-Silver Bow County Administrator J.P. Gallagher as a defendant. He canceled a lecture at a public library on the history of Two Spirit people in Native American tradition by transgender woman Adria Jawort due to concerns it might break the new law, although Jawort was scheduled to be there as herself and not as a drag performer. Jawort later held the event at a different location.

Consequences for breaking the new law include a potential $5,000 fine and suspension proceedings for library or school staff. Other defendants named in the suit include Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

A spokesperson for the City of Helena said last week staff was still in the process of reviewing the permit application, but in the filing Monday, the city said it plans to issue the permit, though it acknowledges there are potential consequences if the law is still in place.

“While the City of Helena plans to issue one permit to Plaintiff Montana Pride for all planned events beginning July 30 and running through August 5, the permit places the burden upon the Pride performers to either comply with the vague, overbroad, and confusing law, or face civil and criminal liability for exercising their fundamental rights,” the filing read.

The filing, submitted by Helena City Attorney Rebecca Dockter in advance of the hearing to take place on Wednesday, said the law puts the city and Plaintiffs in “similarly untenable positions” and therefore the city does not dispute the necessity of a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

The city requested the court order HB 359 be enjoined prior to the event start date on July 30.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon for the judge in the case to hear arguments about why a temporary restraining order should be granted.