Tribe Seeks to Drop Lawsuit Over State Vaccine Discrimination Ban

The plaintiffs sought a ruling that said the state does not have jurisdiction to enforce the law on tribal land

By Matt Volz, KFF Health News
Beacon file photo

The question of whether a controversial Montana law banning vaccine discrimination can be enforced on Native American reservations will remain unanswered after the Blackfeet Nation and a local economic development council said in May they would drop their lawsuit on the issue.

The Blackfeet and the Glacier County Regional Port Authority said in federal court filings that the case is moot after a state hearings panel earlier in May dismissed a Cut Bank man’s complaint against the port authority. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris had not ordered the federal case closed as of June 7, but the plaintiffs in the case said they expected him to do so. 

J.R. Myers, a Glacier County resident who is not a Blackfeet tribal member, lodged his complaint with the state over a November 2021 port authority meeting on tribal land that required attendees to be vaccinated against covid-19, in compliance with a tribal ordinance in effect at the time. Myers alleged the vaccination requirement violated the state law passed six months earlier that bans public and private organizations from discriminating against people based on their vaccination status.

In response, the port authority filed its lawsuit against the state in U.S. District Court. The Blackfeet later joined the case. The plaintiffs sought a ruling that said the state does not have jurisdiction to enforce the law on tribal land, even though the port authority that hosted the meeting is not a tribal entity.

In May, the state Department of Labor & Industry dismissed Myers’ complaint because Myers did not try to go to the meeting.

“Myers cannot claim damages or injury when he did not even attempt to attend this meeting, and cannot show that he was refused from attending due to his vaccination status,” wrote hearing officer Jeffrey Doud in his dismissal of Myers’ complaint.

As a result, the Blackfeet and the port authority asked Morris to dismiss their federal lawsuit, as well. That means the dispute over enforcing the state law on tribal land will go unresolved for now, according to Mark Carter, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who represented the Blackfeet.

“This case did not create any precedent on the issue, but it is clear from the state’s briefs that it believes it has the authority to sanction non-state entities that are complying with tribal law but may be in conflict with state law,” Carter said.

The tribe considers that an infringement on its sovereignty, Carter added, particularly as it relates to an ordinance passed “to protect the health and welfare of its citizens and all those within the boundaries of Blackfeet Nation lands.”

The state labor department, the agency that dismissed the complaint against Myers and whose head is named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit, declined to comment.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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