By AMY BETH HANSON and SAM METZ (Associated Press)
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s House Speaker canceled a session Tuesday, 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 that prohibits gender-affirming healthcare, be allowed to speak.
The cancellation is the latest development in a showdown over whether Montana Republicans will let the Missoula lawmaker speak unless he apologizes for his remarks last week about a proposed health care ban that states the gender.
Speaker Matt Regier did not respond to questions Tuesday or explain why lawmakers did not return their word, but in a brief statement called the disruptions a “dark day for Montana.”
“Currently, all representatives are free to participate in the debates of the House by following the rules of the House,” Regier told reporters. “The choice to disobey House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr made. The only person who silenced Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. Montana House will not be assaulted.”
Under Regier’s leadership, the House has not allowed Zephyr to speak since last week, when he said those who voted to ban gender-affirming care for youth would have “blood on their hands.” He and other Republicans said the remark was far outside the bounds of proper civil discourse and called on him to 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 disrupted House proceedings after Zephyr was denied the right to to speak on a bill. The scene at the Statehouse galvanized both those who called for her to be allowed to speak and those who say her actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.
Like the events at the Tennessee Statehouse weeks ago — where two lawmakers were expelled after participating in a gun control protest after the after-school shooting that disrupted proceedings — Zephyr’s sentence ignited a firestorm of debate about the government and democracy in times of political polarization.
It showed the growing power of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing lawmakers that led the charge to discipline Zephyr. The caucus resumed its demands and rhetoric on Monday. In a statement, they said Zephyr’s decision to raise a microphone to gallery protesters amounted to “encouraging an insurrection.”
It’s unclear whether Regier and House leaders will follow the Freedom Caucus’ request. Republican Casey Knudsen, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said Monday’s cancellation gave leaders time to respond to Monday’s events. House Democratic Leader Kim Abbott said he believes the leadership’s decision to cancel gives lawmakers “some time to regroup.”
The House is scheduled to reconvene Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans announced Tuesday.
Although several protesters resisted law enforcement officers trying to arrest them on Monday, Abbott declined to characterize the activity as violent. She admitted it was disruptive but called the demonstration peaceful. She said the public protests were a predictable response to an MP representing more than 10,000 constituents not being allowed to speak and was questioned about bringing in plainclothes officers to deal with the protesters.
“He was chanting, but he was absolutely not violent,” she said. “Sometimes extreme measures have a response like this.”
No damage was reported to the building, and lawmakers were not threatened.
On Monday, Zephyr said the seven arrested were “defending democracy” and, in an earlier speech, said the sequence of events that followed her remarks illustrated how they had come to terms with those in power.
“They elected me at this point because I said one thing that got through their shield for a second,” she told a crowd of supporters gathered on the Capitol steps next to a banner reading “Democracy Dies Here.”
She said she had no plans to apologize and argued that her “blood on your hands” remark accurately reflected the stakes of such bans on transgender children.
This story has been corrected to show that Rep. Casey Knudsen is not a member of the Montana Freedom Caucus.