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Montana House cancels session after rally for trans lawmaker

Protests and arrests on Monday galvanized both those demanding Zephyr be allowed to speak and others demanding she apologize for what they called an unacceptable attack on civil discourse

Rep. Zooey Zephyr
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, stands on the steps of the Montana State Capitol during a rally, in Helena, Mont., Monday, April 24, 2023Thom Bridge (AP)

Montana’s House speaker canceled a Tuesday floor session a day after seven protesters were arrested for disrupting proceedings with demands that Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Democrat silenced by lawmakers for comments against a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care, be allowed to speak.

The cancellation is the latest development in a standoff over whether Montana Republicans will let the lawmaker from Missoula speak unless she apologizes for her remarks last week on a gender-affirming care ban proposal.

Speaker Matt Regier did not take questions on Tuesday or explain why lawmakers were not returning to the floor, but in a brief statement called the disruptions a “dark day for Montana.”

“Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules,” Regier told reporters. “The choice to not follow the House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied.”

Under Regier’s leadership, the House has not allowed Zephyr to speak since last week when she said that those who voted to ban gender-affirming care for young people would have “blood on their hands.” He and other Republicans said the remark was far outside the boundaries of appropriate civil discourse and demanded she apologize before being allowed to participate in legislative discussions.

Zephyr’s remarks, and the Republican response, set off a chain of events that culminated in a rally outside the Capitol at noon Monday and seven arrests later that afternoon when protesters interrupted House proceedings after Zephyr was denied the right to speak on a bill. The scene at the Statehouse galvanized both those demanding she be allowed to speak and those saying her actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.

Much like developments in the Tennessee Statehouse weeks ago — where two lawmakers were expelled after participating in a post-school shooting gun control protest that interrupted proceedings — Zephyr’s punishment has ignited a firestorm of debate about governance and democracy in politically polarizing times.

It has showcased the growing power of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing lawmakers that has spearheaded the charge to discipline Zephyr. The caucus re-upped its demands and rhetoric Monday. In a statement they said that Zephyr’s decision to hoist a microphone toward the gallery’s protesters amounted to “encouraging an insurrection.”

It’s unclear if Regier and House leaders will follow the Freedom Caucus’s demand. Republican Rep. Casey Knudsen, the chair of the House Rules committee, said Monday’s cancellation gave leadership time to respond to Monday’s events. House Democratic Leader Kim Abbott said she saw leadership’s decision to cancel as giving lawmakers “some time to regroup.”

The House is scheduled to meet again on Wednesday afternoon, the chamber’s Republicans announced Tuesday.

Although several protesters resisted law enforcement officers trying to arrest them on Monday, Abbott pushed back at characterizing the activity as violent. She acknowledged it was disruptive, but called the demonstration peaceful. She said public protests were a predictable response to a lawmaker representing more than 10,000 constituents not being allowed to speak and questioned bringing in officers in riot gear to handle the chanting protesters.

“It was chanting, but it absolutely was not violent,” she said. “Sometimes extreme measures have a response like this.”

There were no reports of damage to the building and lawmakers were not threatened.

On Monday, Zephyr said the seven arrested were “defending democracy” and in an earlier speech said that the sequence of events that followed her remarks illustrated how they had struck a chord with those in power.

“They picked me in this moment because I said a thing that got through their shield for a second,” she told a crowd of supporters gathered on the Capitol steps near a banner that read “Democracy dies here.”

She said she does not intend to apologize and argued that her “blood on your hands” remark accurately reflected the stakes of such bans for transgender kids.

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