Montana bill that would ban diversity training gets first hearing

Bill similar to DeSantis’ ‘Stop WOKE’ training in Florida

By: - February 6, 2023 5:33 pm

Sen. Jeremy Trebas closes on Senate Bill 222 in the Senate State Administration Committee on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

A bill that would prohibit state departments from requiring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training — similar to Florida’s “Stop WOKE” legislation — would be bad for Montana students and could lead to litigation, as it did in Florida, opponents said in a hearing.

“I have no doubts that this is little more than a censorship attempt rooted in a coordinated national effort to roll back progress on racial and social justice,” said Montana Human Rights Network Executive Director Angelina González-Aller in opposition to the bill.

Senate Bill 222, also known as the “Montana Individual Freedom Act,” had no proponents during its first hearing on Friday.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, the bill would ban diversity, equity and inclusion training conducted by “the state or any of its political subdivisions,” meaning schools.

Trebas said he believes it’s necessary so employees aren’t forced to undergo trainings they disagree with.

“Certainly not arguing that we limit free speech or free speech that we don’t agree with, especially in the public realm, only as it could apply to employees who have no option to opt out, unless they want to take another job,” Trebas said.

Emails between Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, who originally requested the bill draft, and legislative staff show Florida’s legislation was central to the Montana bill, as was the Florida litigation that came since its passage.

Florida’s Stop WOKE bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron Desantis and took effect last summer, has been tied up in litigation. A judge struck down portions associated with higher education, as reported by the Washington Post.

At the hearing in the Senate State Administration Committee, Lyla Brown with Forward Montana said as a graduate student at the Billings campus of Montana State University, she had professors who were able to connect her to literature and resources they would not know without DEI training.

She also said that the bill has no place in the state due to its conflict with Indian Education for All in Article 10 of the Montana Constitution, which requires Native American history be taught in schools in Montana.

Certified DEI instructor Meshayla Cox said she lives in Bozeman and Montana has not always been welcoming to her as a black woman.

“In fact, there’s times it’s been downright hostile,” she said. “That’s why the types of trainings referenced in this bill are so essential.”

Cox said the bill is government overreach on learning opportunities for staff that should be left to businesses. She also said no effective training has the goal of creating guilt or anguish, which is outlined in the bill. However, she said learning about the state’s complicated past can be uncomfortable.

“If we’re unwilling to be brave enough to look at the past for ways to improve our future, I worry a lot more than just this bill’s passage,” she said. “It is the responsibility of this body to ensure Montana’s future. That future must be inclusive, it must be brave, and it must be based on an accurate telling of Montana’s history.”

Hundreds of similar bills have been introduced in state houses around the country, as tracked by a UCLA Law School initiative.

At the hearing, Don Harris, Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Administration, said the department’s sole concern was language that would impact contractors that work with the state.

“If the state’s buying a pickup, do we tell the car dealership what kind of training they’re supposed to give their employees?” he asked.

He said the second impact the department could see was that some contractors would not continue working with the state, which would mean less competition.

“And in a free market, less competition just means higher prices,” he said.

Trebas said in his opening remarks that he would be open to an amendment that impacts current contracts.

During questioning from the committee, Trebas said there could be litigation from this bill but “that seems like a pretty rare outlier event.”

“I think certainly these topics are appropriate as history discussion topics, at places of higher learning, absolutely,” Trebas said. “I don’t think they’re appropriate as opinion-based messaging and employment trainings.”

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.