by Shahid Haque-Hausrath, Immigration Attorney with the Border Crossing Law Firm, P.C. and President of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance (“MIJA”).

Immigrants who are challenging LR-121, the State of Montana’s new anti-immigrant law, owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneering gay rights advocates who established an important legal precedent that gives marginalized groups legal standing to challenge laws that threaten to deprive them of their rights.

In 1993, Linda Gryczan led a legal challenge to Montana’s “deviate sexual conduct” statute, which criminalized consensual, private, same-gender sex between adults. In bringing this lawsuit against the State of Montana, she and her five colleagues broke new ground — this was well before the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas reshaped the law regarding private same-sex relationships.

Under the law Gryczan challenged, sex between two consenting adults was a felony, with a possible 10 year prison term or a $50,000 fine. The discriminatory law was enacted in 1977, and although there were no reported instances of any arrests or prosecutions under the law, the threat of enforcement constantly loomed over the plaintiffs. They were made to feel like criminals and second-class residents of the state they called home.

The State of Montana asked the Judge to dismiss Gryczan’s lawsuit, arguing that these plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the constitutional challenge. The state argued that the statute had not yet been enforced against anyone, so there was no immediate threatened injury, and that “the mere apprehension of prosecution or the fact that a person may feel denigrated by the law is not sufficient.”

Essentially, the state was arguing that an unconstitutional law could remain on the books, serving as a constant threat that one could be deprived of their rights at any time, but no one could challenge the law until the state actually enforced it against them. In 1997, the Montana Supreme Court rejected the state’s assertion, finding that Gryczan and her colleagues were directly targeted by the law, and even if it had not yet been used against them, they had standing to challenge it based on the threatened injury.

Nevertheless, this familiar argument by the State of Montana was exactly the same one thatmembers of the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance (“MIJA”) faced after they brought their legal challenge to Montana’s new anti-immigrant law.

LR-121 was a referendum asking if voters were for or against denying certain state services to illegal aliens. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Howard (R-Park City), LR-121 was meant as “a deterrent, so that people will not focus on Montana as a place to come, take our jobs, take our benefits, and live here.”

The law ostensibly requires all Montanans to present proof of citizenship or lawful resident status before accessing state services, meaning that for the first time in Montana’s history, the state would be requiring all residents to start showing their papers before they can access basic state services. This is a massive undertaking. However, no effort has been made to uniformly apply this law, leading to the likelihood that only those Montanans who look or sound different will be asked to prove their status. LR-121 would also violate federal law by denying services to lawful permanent residents who illegally entered the country, but later fixed their immigration status and are now residing here legally. And, the law asks state agencies to misuse a federal database to determine immigration status — despite the fact that federal laws prohibit the database from being used this way — and report applicants to the federal government for deportation proceedings.

LR-121 has created fear and anxiety in the immigrant communities in Montana, amongst both documented and undocumented residents. Eleven members of MIJA who would be denied state services under this law came forward and challenged its constitutionality. However, Attorney General Tim Fox’s office filed a motion to dismiss this lawsuit, making the same arguments that Linda Gryczan faced over a 15 years earlier. The state argued that our claims were speculative because no state agency had yet denied anyone state services under this law, and that we had to wait until that happened to challenge the law.

In our response brief, we were able to draw a direct parallel between Gryczan and the immigrants affected by LR-121. Judge Sherlock agreed with us and rejected the state’s attempt to dismiss our lawsuit, finding that Gryczan had directly addressed this issue in her lawsuit many years ago:

In Gryczan, a group of homosexuals brought a constitutional challenge against Montana’s deviant sexual conduct statute. The statute was not being enforced against any of the plaintiffs, and there was no indication there was a credible threat that it would be applied against them. Further, the court record indicated that no one had ever been prosecuted under the statute. The Supreme Court noted that the key fact was that the statute in question was only 24 years old and had recently been amended. In the instant case, it is important to note that LR-121 was passed in November 2012. With the passage of such a recent enactment, one could say it is reasonable to assume that it will be enforced.

Of further note to the Gryczan court was the fact that the plaintiffs were precisely the type of people the statute was designed to affect. Here, exactly the same situation obtains, especially as to the affidavits filed by Plaintiffs of various individuals who illegally entered the United States, but are now lawfully present in this country. The Gryczan court found that the plaintiffs’ reasonable fear of prosecution was enough to grant them standing under these circumstances. Another factor considered by the Gryczan court was that to deny the plaintiffs standing would be to immunize the statute from review.

The court found that “each of the factors mentioned above apply in this case” and denied the State of Montana’s attempt to dismiss our lawsuit.

Linda Gryczan won her lawsuit over 15 years ago, and the “deviate sexual conduct” statute was blocked. However, the Montana Legislature refused to take the obsolete and unenforceable language off the books until this year.

The lasting impact of Gryczan’s lawsuit has been felt not only by the LGBT community, but by all marginalized groups who are targeted by legislation that will deprive them of their rights. Thanks to Linda Gryczan and her co-plaintiffs, it is well-established under Montana law that groups who are targeted by discriminatory legislation can immediately challenge laws that threaten them, and don’t have to allow the laws to sit on the books — creating intentional fear and uncertainty — until the state chooses to enforce them.

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The litigation against LR-121 is being done on a pro bono basis by Brian J. Miller of Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson and Deola PLLP, and Shahid Haque-Hausrath of the Border Crossing Law Firm, P.C. We are proud to stand up against LR-121. Please consider sending us a donation to support this lawsuit.