HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Republicans barred transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from the House floor for the rest of the 2023 session on Wednesday in retaliation for her rebuking colleagues – and then participating in protests – after they voted to ban gender-affirming medical care for children.
The punishment of the freshman lawmaker caps a weeklong standoff between House Republican leaders and Zephyr which concluded that she will still be able to vote remotely under the terms of the punishment. She will be unable though to discuss proposals and amendments under consideration with the 99 other members of the Montana House for the remainder of the 90-day legislative session.
In a defiant speech Wednesday, Zephyr addressed House leaders directly and said she was taking a stand for the LGBTQ+ community and her 11,000 constituents in Missoula. She said that House Speaker Matt Regier was attempting to drive “a nail in the coffin of democracy."
“If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you’re doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” Zephyr said.
House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, who supported barring Zephyr from the floor, accused her of placing lawmakers and staff at risk of harm for disrupting House proceedings by inciting protests in the chamber on Monday.
Authorities arrested seven people in a confrontation that House Republicans claim she had encouraged.
“Freedom in this body involves obedience to all the rules of this body, including the rules of decorum,” Vinton said.
“This is an assault on our representative democracy, spirited debate, and the free expression of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of turmoil and incivility,” Republican David Bedey said on the House floor.
The censure motion is the latest development in a standoff over remarks Zephyr made last week on the proposed ban.
“What is at stake is the expectation that any member of this body, whoever that might be, has a duty to strive to maintain decorum, so that the people’s work, that work of all Montanans, can be accomplished," Bedey said.
The House Speaker had previously said he would not allow her to speak until she apologized, which Zephyr refused to do. Since then, she has been forbidden from speaking on the House floor.
Since the remarks, conservative Republicans have repeatedly misgendered Zephyr by using incorrect pronouns to describe her.
Just weeks ago in the Tennessee Statehouse, state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black lawmakers, were expelled for participating in a protest in favor of gun control after another school shooting. Similarly, Zephyr’s punishment has ignited a firestorm of debate about governance and who has a voice in an elected body during this politically polarizing time.
Zephyr’s remarks last week, and the Republican response, set off a chain of events that culminated in a rally outside the Capitol at noon Monday. Protesters later packed into the gallery at the Statehouse and brought House proceedings to a halt while chanting “Let her speak.” The scene galvanized both her supporters and and those saying her actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.
Such a protest wasn't allowed on Wednesday, when Republican leaders close the gallery to the public while the vote to censure Zephyr occurred.
Regier did not give a speech on the censure motion on Wednesday but earlier called the disruptions a “dark day for Montana" and pledged to ensure the chamber would “not be bullied.”
It's under Regier's leadership that the House has persisted in preventing Zephyr from speaking. He and other Republicans have said her “blood on your hands” remark was far outside the boundaries of appropriate civil discourse.
“There needs to be some consequences for what he has been doing,” said Rep. Joe Read, who frequently but not always used incorrect pronouns when referring to the Democrat.
He claimed Zephyr gave a signal to her supporters just before Monday's session was disrupted. He declined to say what that was other than a “strange movement.”
"When she gave the signal for protestors to go into action, I would say that’s when decorum was incredibly broken,” Read added.
The events have showcased the growing power of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of at least 21 right-wing lawmakers including Read that has spearheaded the charge to discipline Zephyr. The caucus re-upped its demands and rhetoric Monday, saying in a statement that Zephyr's decision to hoist a microphone toward the gallery's protesters amounted to “encouraging an insurrection."
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.
Zephyr said the seven arrested were “defending democracy. In an earlier speech, she said 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 has 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.
By AMY BETH HANSON, SAM METZ and MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press
Metz reported from Salt Lake and Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
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