House parties caucus before passing bills on gun non-discrimination and pronouns

By: - February 15, 2023 7:42 pm

Rep. Brandon Ler, R- Savage, speaks on the House floor on February 15, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, the first openly transgender woman in the Montana legislature, said she has watched 50 members deftly dodge her pronouns.

“But no one in this body has come up to me and said, ‘You’re a man,’” she said. “Because we would recognize that’s not right, that’s unkind, that’s out of decorum.”

She said if members expect to treat people with dignity in the chamber, Montanans should expect it in their schools.

“This is inherently discriminatory,” she said.

Two bills sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ler, R- Savage, were hotly debated on the House Floor on Wednesday. House Bill 356 involves gun non-discrimination, where the state could not contract with companies that “discriminate against entities or firearm trade associations.” House Bill 361 would allow students to be misgendered by classmates in school.

Both parties filed out of the chamber to caucus and plot their strategies in their respective committee rooms for the first time this session prior to debate.

Republican leadership said the two Ler bills that passed out of the House Judiciary Committee were important ones for the party.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said in committee there were attempts to make the debate emotional. He told his caucus not to take the bait during debate on the floor..

“At the end of the day the voters sent us here with a supermajority,” Regier said. “We got the votes; they have a microphone.”

Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, explained why he would be voting against Ler’s bill on firearm discrimination. He said he voted in favor of House Bill 228 because it prevented environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing in Montana.

“With ESG investing, the Democrats love it because it injects liberal values into the corporate decision-making process,” Fitzpatrick said. “Now we come around here today with a bill that wants to do exactly the same thing, but since it’s a Republican idea it’s acceptable.”

Fitzpatrick was the only Republican to vote against the bill on the floor, which passed second reading 67-33.

In closing on HB 356, Ler said it protects constitutional rights.

“As long as you do not have a discriminatory policy against the Second Amendment, you are good,” Ler said. “This bill is designed to make companies that are looking to do business with the state of Montana more open and honest about the policies they hold.”

The debate surrounding Ler’s second bill on the House floor on pronouns and preferred names in school Wednesday brought even more disagreement across the aisle.

Ler opened debate reiterating that he felt this bill was not about bullying. It was voted out of committee with an amendment brought by Rep. Casey Knudsen, R- Malta, to provide the caveat that the behavior cannot rise to bullying as defined in statute.

Zephyr said in her comments on the bill that people change their names for all sorts of reasons, like nicknames.

Rep. Neil Duram, R- Eureka, who sits next to Zephyr in the House Judiciary Committee, said if someone called him a name with intended disrespect, he would see that person as his antagonist. Duram said he would still be voting in favor of the bill, as his constituents were widely in favor of it.

“To me, as a Christ follower, I will always treat everyone around me with as much respect as I can,” he said.

He said that others can call him out if his behavior is not in line with his beliefs.

Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, said cumulative opposition for the bill outweighed support from constituents, according to the report released by legislative services. As of Wednesday morning, the legislature had received messages from 36 people in favor and 299 opposed to the bill.

She said the bill sanctions bullying, even with the amendment.

“I did not come here to pass laws that allow kids to bully other kids, and I don’t think you came here for that either,” she said.

House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, mentioned an instance in which a sorority member at a Montana university was barred from participating in activities for questioning the university’s school policy that people use others’ preferred pronouns.

A Montana State University student filed a complaint in U.S. District Court after she was dismissed from Alpha Gamma Delta, with chapter leadership saying she made remarks that using preferred pronouns was “stupid” and “dumb.”

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said he is under no obligation to be respectful to those in the room.

“Students do not give up their fundamental constitutional liberties simply by being customers, and by being part of the state’s education system,” he said. “… Schools can’t tell or force us how to relate to one another.”

“That’s part of what school is. No one is under any obligation to be kind to me in school,” he said, speaking to his own experience being bullied in school. “They were just under an obligation to not take it past the point of not liking me.”

Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, said Republicans should not vote for this bill if they believe in respect for people. She said using people’s preferred names is an easy gesture of basic respect. She said she was bullied for her middle name growing up and got emotional recounting her experience.

“‘What’s wrong? That’s your name. What’s wrong? That’s your name.’ That’s what kids were telling me,” she said.

In closing on his bill, Ler said it was also bullying to force his kids and other kids to say something they believe is not true and against their First Amendment rights.

The bill passed second reading 66-34, with Fitzpatrick and Rep. Gregory Frazer, R- Deer Lodge, the only Republicans voting no.

Both bills will go onto third reading Thursday in order to pass the House and be sent to the Senate.

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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.