Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr walks out of the house chamber after a motion to bar Zephyr from the chamber passed, at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. Rep. Zephyr will still be able to vote on bills remotely. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr will not be allowed on the floor or gallery of the Montana House of Representatives for the remainder of the legislative session and will only be allowed to participate via Zoom after Republicans on Wednesday voted to punish the Missoula Democrat for what they said were her breaches of decorum and House rules.
The House voted 68 to 32 on party lines after providing notice Tuesday it would take action with respect to her conduct. Republicans Casey Knudsen of Malta and David Bedey of Hamilton, who have previously taken votes in support of Zephyr, said they had to support the motion given events of Monday.
The censure motion followed a protest that erupted in the House gallery two days earlier. Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, read the motion, which elicited gasps from members of the public watching from a conference room because the gallery was closed to the public.
Vinton said Zephyr had disrupted orderly proceedings and put legislators, pages and others at risk of harm as a result: “Freedom in this body involves obedience to all the rules of the this body, including the rules of decorum.”
Since last week, Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, has not recognized Zephyr’s attempts to speak on behalf of her constituents after she said Republicans would have “blood on (their) hands” if they supported Senate Bill 99, which would ban gender-affirming care for minors if signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Wednesday, Zephyr spoke prior to the vote and said she was defending democracy and her community, whose art, history and health care she said has been systematically targeted.
“When I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic,” Zephyr said, who has had friends die by suicide. “I was speaking to the consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body.”
Republicans have a supermajority this session, and hardliners in the Freedom Caucus misgendered Zephyr in a statement last Tuesday calling for censure.
Youth suicide rates are high in Montana, and suicide among transgender youth are even higher. A story in the Guardian from December 2022 said more than 50% of transgender and non-binary youth in the U.S. considered suicide in the past year.
Zephyr is the first openly transgender legislator serving in the Montana House. The controversy has drawn national media attention since last week.
In not recognizing Zephyr, Regier has argued she breached decorum in telling Republicans they should be “ashamed” of themselves for voting in favor of SB99, but Zephyr has stood her ground, and constituents and other supporters have backed her.
Monday, an estimated 200-300 demonstrators rallied at the Capitol to support Zephyr, privacy and democracy, and later in the House, protestors in the gallery broke into chanting to let Zephyr speak after Regier again did not recognize her attempt to be heard on a bill.
“Bullshit!” one person yelled. Others soon joined in, chanting, “Whose house? Our house,” and calling on Republican leadership to “let her speak.”
Regier had asked people in the gallery to remain quiet, and after people started chanting, law enforcement forcibly removed people from the area. Seven people were booked and released in the county jail for trespassing.
In response to the calls to allow Zephyr to speak, Regier has said he isn’t silencing Zephyr at all, but rather, maintaining decorum via House rules. He has requested an apology from the freshman representative.
“The choice not to follow House rules is one that Representative Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr,” Regier said Tuesday.
During the protest that erupted on the floor, lawmakers were moved to the wings of the House floor, and Republicans largely left the chamber. Democrats stayed in the chamber in support of Zephyr.
Zephyr stood mostly alone on the floor watching as people yelled in support of her and as police – some of them in riot gear – were brought in to clear the gallery.
“When my constituents and community members witnessed my microphone being disabled, they courageously came forward to defend their democratic right to be heard — and some were arrested in the process,” Zephyr said in a statement that evening. “I stood by them in solidarity and will continue to do so.”
In the notice of action Tuesday, Regier, Speaker Pro Tem Rhonda Knudsen, and Majority Leader Sue Vinton said they would close the gallery to take up the 1 p.m. motion to “maintain decorum and ensure safety.” The notice said the public could observe the proceeding from the legislative website or a committee room with televised public viewing.
The Montana Constitution says no one will be deprived of their right to observe public bodies unless privacy rights exceed the merits of public disclosure, and it also protects people’s right to participate.
Republican leadership has not responded to a question requesting the legal rationale for the closure. House Democrats opposed it.
“Montana’s Constitution guarantees citizens the right to participate in their government, and that includes the right to observe a floor session from the gallery. It’s disappointing, but not surprising given the GOP’s disregard for Montanans’ rights throughout this session,” said House Democrats.
The Senate gallery also was closed Wednesdsay.
On several occasions starting last Thursday, Democrats protested Zephyr’s lack of recognition on the floor, but all but two or three Republicans have voted to support Regier’s ruling that Zephyr should not be recognized because of what the Speaker says are her violations of decorum rules.
“It’s up to the speaker on who gets recognized and who doesn’t,” Regier told reporters last Thursday. “So, until that trust is restored, and I can assure the integrity of the House is a priority, then I think it’s going to be a pause.”
Tuesday’s floor session was canceled as leadership considered its next steps and looked at the state Constitution and the House and joint rules to see what kind of further action to pursue against Zephyr after Monday’s protests.
House Republican leadership sent notice to Zephyr and every member of the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening notifying them they would bring a motion related to Zephyr’s conduct on the floor on Monday, when she stood with a microphone in the air as dozens of protesters chanted to “Let Zooey speak.” The letter said the body would determine whether Zephyr’s conduct “violated the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, integrity, or decorum” of the House and whether to “impose disciplinary consequences for those actions.” The letter also said the House gallery would be closed for the day.
House Republican leadership sent notice to Zephyr and every member of the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening notifying them they would bring a motion related to Zephyr’s conduct on the floor on Monday, when she stood with a microphone in the air as dozens of protesters chanted to “Let Zooey speak.”
The letter said the body would determine whether Zephyr’s conduct “violated the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, integrity, or decorum” of the House and whether to “impose disciplinary consequences for those actions.”
The letter also said the House gallery would be closed for the day.
Regier, Speaker Pro Tem Rhonda Knudsen and Majority Leader Sue Vinton issued a news release Monday evening in which they called what transpired Monday a “riot by far-left agitators” which they said “endangered legislators and staff.”
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the floor session would be canceled, which was confirmed about a half-hour later when Regier held a news conference to say Zephyr was not being “silenced” and that “the only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr.” He left his brief news conference without taking questions from members of the Montana press.
Earlier that morning, Regier had also told the Senate Finance and Claims Committee that an affordable housing bill he is sponsoring, which had been supported by Abbott, that he didn’t know the future of the bill due to “recent events that have happened over in the House.”
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