Where have Montana manners gone?
| April 30, 2023 12:00 AM
It was Feb. 10, 2007, and I was standing on the House floor, presenting my bill to allow alternate certification of teachers by local school districts on a one-year trial basis. The idea of the legislation was to provide a small pathway for (often retired) persons with exceptional talents and experience to teach classes in a local public school, with school board approval. After proving themselves for a year, they could apply for state certification.
While everyone I spoke with liked the idea, the public school establishment – led by the MEA teachers’ union – had a conniption fit, demanding to keep their monopoly on the classroom intact. So they packed the House gallery that afternoon with angry teachers, who were quite the rowdy bunch – reacting to my comments and cheering the remarks of opponents. I thought to myself at the time, it was a good thing their students were not witnessing their disrespect for legislators and the orderly process of government.
But the next thing that happened is what didn’t happen in the Montana House on April 22 of this year, when armed officers in riot gear arrested seven protesters while herding the rest out of the building.
In 2007, the presiding chairman simply issued them a warning – and then a second warning – that their disruption of House business would not be tolerated. Then the teachers continued to act up, and Chairman Himmelberger stated, “Will the sergeant at arms please clear the gallery.”
At that point, everyone in the room knew that the demonstrators had gone much too far. Several Democratic legislators stood up and appealed to the chair for leniency with, assurances that there would be no more disruptions. There were none. The debate proceeded respectfully, and in the end, half of the Republicans (rattled by a gallery full of ill-mannered teachers) bailed on the bill and joined the Democrats in a 24-76 thumping of alternative teacher certification. The process proceeded democratically, and I accepted the outcome.
That was 2007, but we live in a very different time today. Compare that event with the 100 supporters of Rep. Zooey Zephyr who literally shut down the House of Representatives and had to be dragged off by law enforcement. No manner of gaveling by Speaker Matt Regier would calm them down. They were there for the express purpose of stopping government from functioning. Understand, this was not a spontaneous thing. One hundred people don’t show up in the gallery and over 200 on the Capitol steps, with large signs and well-rehearsed chants, by happenstance.
No, this was a well-planned and orchestrated assault on the state House of Representatives, with the full knowledge and support of Zephyr, and possibly a number of her Democratic colleagues. How do we know this? For one thing, because Zephyr stood on the floor, facing the screaming mob, saluting them with her microphone. And what about the 31 other Democrats, still standing by their seats, passively watching the spectacle after the Republicans left the chamber in disgust? Were they making any effort to quell the riot and restore order?
The Democrats in my day, saw to it that the misbehaving teachers showed some dignity and respect, so the business of the House could proceed. But the contrast between those days and now is striking. As of this writing, to my knowledge not a single Democratic legislator has condemned the travesty that took place that day.
We have also heard from this party, the deafening sounds of silence when confronted with the hate speech that Zephyr directed at people of faith. Consider her words: “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
Invocations are a time of solemn spiritual devotion, an appeal from one’s heart for help and guidance from our sovereign God. Can anyone doubt that Zephyr’s cutting remarks were intended to mock the Christians in the room, and in so doing, to mock their God? To label Republicans as essentially pious hypocrites?
A slip of the tongue? Hardly. To quote Zephyr, “I pick my words with precision and speak with clarity.” She knew what she was saying, and she meant every syllable – underscored by her later refusal to recant or apologize. It was those words that the disrupters were proudly standing behind, those words that her silent Democratic colleagues condoned. It’s called open season on Christians, and its real hypocrisy is only too apparent. Some of us have had enough.
One Christian, former state legislator Rick Jore, who served with me in 2007, put it this way: “In my view, the specific words of this young man [sic]… that are most offensive is the obvious intent to mock God and the solemnity of the privilege and act of prayer. It would be one thing to make the very serious claim that a vote on certain legislation would cause literal and ultimate “blood on the hands” of the legislator for that vote. (Interesting that they won’t make the same application for pro-abortion votes.) What must be recognized is that by making the statement in the context of an act of prayer to Almighty God, the accusation moves beyond the mere vote of the legislator to the object of the prayer and the source of just law.”
Can you imagine the uproar in the media if a conservative lawmaker and her supporters were guilty of anything approaching this? But conservatives — as respecters of individual conscience and individual faith — would never think those thoughts, let alone say those words or create that kind of mayhem.
We do indeed live in a time when widely accepted moral standards are now bifurcated, situationally and politically. We live in an age where murdering pillaging and burning down cities are “mostly peaceful protests,” where systemic racism is to blame, not the rioters. Where the responsibility for individual action — and individual sin — is shed by the individual and transferred to collective society with its collective guilt. A time when a Montana lawmaker can openly ridicule people’s Christian faith if they vote the wrong way, and instigate a riot that shuts down the legislature. Somehow, we are supposed to believe this is justified — and the disciplining of Zephyr meanspirited — solely because she is transgender and thus, by definition, not responsible for her actions in the same way that traditional, non-transitioning “straights” are.
Whatever happened to playing by the rules, which Zephyr committed to doing when she was sworn into office? Whatever happened to manners — or do manners and common decency only apply to one side of the political spectrum and one realm of religious faith?
Roger Koopman, of Bozeman, served two terms in the Montana House and two terms on the Montana Public Service Commission.