HELENA — A conservative group wants to let Montana voters decide whether transgender people must use public restrooms and locker rooms designated for their gender at birth - a move that could thrust the state into the national debate over transgender rights.
The Montana Family Foundation launched its campaign to place the matter on next year's fall ballot after lawmakers declined to do so.
If approved by voters, the measure would affect how public schools, universities and other government agencies accommodate transgender people. Facilities designated for use by one sex would have to exclude the opposite sex.
The foundation called the effort a necessary step to protect "the privacy, safety and dignity" of Montana children and help guard against sexual predators.
"There are active lawsuits in other states, and we wanted to take a proactive role in protecting privacy," said Bowen Greenwood, director of government affairs for the foundation.
The ACLU and other critics have argued that the measure would violate federal anti-discrimination laws and embroil the state in lawsuits. In addition, it could cost Montana millions of dollars in business by generating the same kind of negative publicity that engulfed North Carolina and other states that put similar laws in place.
"It's unfortunate that something that was vetted by the Legislature and was soundly defeated there by a bipartisan coalition is now being taken up by the Montana Family Foundation and is asking the public to sign off on it," said S.K. Rossi, ACLU Montana's director of advocacy and policy.
"It's a dangerous initiative," Rossi said.
Before supporters of the Montana measure can collect signatures, the attorney general must complete a legal review and the governor's budget office would have to perform a fiscal analysis.
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The governor's office previously expressed concern about the measure in part because of its potential impact to the economy.
Spokeswoman Ronja Abel said the fiscal analysis would be limited to the actual cost to the state budget. Legislative analysts say it would cost $1.9 million to implement the proposal, if passed by voters.
"The initiative would be bad for Montana families, businesses and our economy," Abel said.
In North Carolina, PayPal and Deutsche Bank cancelled expansion plans and other companies reconsidered their investments in the state after it implemented a similar measure.
Major money-making events were also pulled.
An analysis in March by The Associated Press suggested North Carolina lost more than $3.7 billion in business payroll, investment and related spending. Since then, however, North Carolina lawmakers have rolled back some of the most controversial elements of the law.
The Texas Association of Business has said that state could lose more than $8 billion in business if it passes a bill limiting which bathrooms transgender people can use.
Supporters of the Montana initiative say the potential losses in North Carolina and Texas are overstated.