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Lawmakers target gender-affirming care, scientific theories and 'San Francisco elites'

Bills affecting transgender Montanans draw emotional debate. Scientific theories are targeted for elimination from public education. And Senator Daines battles Twitter and "San Francisco elites."

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk Holly, a couple of bills affecting transgender Montanans were debated this week. Senate Bill 99 was passed on to the House and an amended version of House Bill 361 was passed out of committee. And both these bills drew very emotional debate.

Holly Michels They did draw a lot of intense debates, Sally. You know, House Bill 361 is from Representative Brandon Ler from Savage. And the bill would say that it wouldn't be unlawful in schools to call a child by the name they were given at birth or the sex that they were assigned at birth. And that's meant to apply to transgender students. That would be what's called "deadnaming," which is when you don't use the name that the student goes by, or misgendering them.

We heard an example from one proponent on the bill who talked about a situation in Wisconsin where a group of students were investigated for using the wrong pronouns for another student. But that investigation was dropped and the records aren't public, so there's not a lot of detail about that case. But that was the only proponent to the bill, and that was their example. But then we heard from a lot of Montana school students and parents about really intense bullying that's already happening in schools and their worries about what that could look like if this bill were to pass.

We heard from one family and a parent and a child who shared the story of continued bullying even after they moved across the state. And we also heard from opponents that there's not problems that come up when this is unintentional. You know, people might have, you know, just misspeak or not really know how to handle a situation. And they're saying, you know, that's not the concern, that it's when it's intense, it's bullying. We heard from one student who said that they faked feeling sick to go home from school because it was such an unfriendly place for them. And like you said, this bill that was amended before it was passed out of committee. The amendment changed it to say that if the behavior did enter the realm of bullying, then school administrators could still step in. Some Republicans on the committee said that this alleviated concerns they had about the bill, but Democrats still oppose the amendment and the bill just saying that the existence of this legislation, they feel, gives the message that it's okay to not call transgender kids by their names or pronouns.

Sally Mauk Republican Senator John Fuller stated that his Senate Bill 99, which would prohibit some medical treatment for transgender kids, he says it's needed to protect kids.

"No serious state would promote the destruction of its own children. We must protect Montanans."

Debate on the state Senate floor came to a rare halt Tuesday after tense and emotional exchanges over a bill to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

Sally Mauk But Democrat Pat Flowers argued the bill is an intrusion.

"If you are truly committed to the freedoms that we enjoy under our Constitution, and the freedoms for our families to make their own decisions about their children, then you'll vote against this bill."

Sally Mauk Some Republicans agreed the bill goes too far, but not enough to kill it, Holly.

Holly Michels Yeah, you know, we had, again, a really intense floor debate and we heard from Fuller there making all the same arguments he has for this bill, both in the previous session where you had similar legislation, and then in committee. We also heard from other Republicans saying that they didn't think minors were mature enough to be making the types of decisions about procedures banned in this bill. But like we heard from Minority Leader Flowers there and from other Democrats, both on the Senate floor and in committee, these are types of surgeries that the bill is banning that just aren't provided to minors in Montana. And for kids that do get other types of gender affirming care, it's done in consultation with teams of medical professionals and parental approval. And the parental arguments, right, which we heard Flowers reference there as well, something lawmakers on both sides of this bill are arguing, you know, Republicans say that this legislation isn't trampling on parents rights because the state has an interest in protecting kids. But Democrats are saying this would put government squarely in between parents, kids and their doctors.

And the Senate debate, I think it's fair to say it's the most intense we've seen this session. And one of the things fueling that is Flowers repeatedly objected when Republican legislators referred to some of the surgeries in this bill as amputations. Flowers said, you know, cisgender people have these surgeries, like his wife, who actually passed away from breast cancer, did. And none of her doctors called that operation an amputation. And then the Senate also actually stalled out before they voted on the bill. When Flowers tried to bring a motion to table it, lawmakers actually stopped the session to have a really intense exchange in the center aisle in the Senate chambers over if that was in the parameters of their rules. Eventually, Flowers dropped the motion and the Senate voted to advance the bill. So, on the second reading for this bill, there were five Republicans who voted against it, along with all the Democrats. And the Republicans who voted against it said that they felt the bill was too much government involvement or got in the way of a parent's ability to best care for their kids.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, Montana is far from the only state debating laws aimed at transgender kids. This isn't an issue that has materialized out of thin air.

Rob Saldin Well, it isn't. I mean, you see it everywhere, as you say, Sally, it's probably the most prominent front in the culture war right now. You know, I think in a general sense, there's a couple things going on here. You have a very prominent and vocal group, and I see a good bit of this among my students who very much view trans issues as something like today's version of the civil rights movement. But for others, especially older folks, but by no means limited to them, they see this as a bewildering issue that seemingly has emerged out of nowhere. And, you know, there's something to this sense that things are changing quickly. Just to go back briefly to an earlier front in the LGBT issues. Barack Obama was opposed to gay marriage until midway through his presidency, right. Not just that he wasn't out there supporting. I mean, he was, he was opposed to it. And the attention to pronouns and whatnot is fairly new. Now, of course, people who are struggling with the things Holly was recounting and that the opponents of the bill emphasized this week, bullying at school and whatnot, you know, that's not going to be much comfort. But for some people, the perception out there is that things are changing really quick and it makes them uneasy.

The other thing I think you got going on out there, Sally, is that we have a media culture in which you can always find some atrocity out there of, for instance, some well-meaning person who gets canceled. And there is a fear that you might unwittingly run afoul of the new orthodoxy on some of this stuff. And Tucker Carlson or whoever will be very quick to unearth and publicize such incidents and present them in a way that suggests this kind of thing is happening routinely. And of course, that's what gives all this its political saliency.

Sally Mauk Holly, speaking of thin air, Republican Senator Daniel Emrich's Senate Bill 325 would ban the teaching of scientific theories. Here's why Emrich thinks the ban is needed.

"If we operate on the assumption that a theory is fact, unfortunately it leads us to asking questions that may be potentially based on false assumptions."

Sally Mauk But Helena high school student Mia Taylor argued scientific theory is part of a good education.

"If we remove scientific theory from science curriculums, what can be taught will be limited. It is the school's job to educate its students."

Sally Mauk Well, I have to admit, Holly, I don't get the problem or the solution that this bill is trying to address.

A bill in the state Legislature seeking to regulate science curriculum in public schools got its first hearing Monday. The legislation’s sponsor says by banning scientific theories, the policy aims to prevent kids from being taught things that aren’t true.

Holly Michels Yeah, so what the bill language says is it would stop the Board of Public Education — which is the body that sets curriculum standards in Montana — it would stop them from using content standards that include a scientific topic that is not fact. And when Emrich was explaining to the committee why he wanted them to pass the bill, he didn't really have any specific examples he brought up of concerns that he's seen in Montana schools. He did push back on what we heard from Taylor there. He said he didn't think that the bill would prohibit the teaching of scientific theories, which are the basis of explaining science. But like we heard from students and a lot of teachers, they said it would bar students from learning basics such as the theory of relativity, because that doesn't meet the definition of a scientific fact as in the bill. And we heard from other students, too. They're worried if this bill were to pass, they would miss out on key parts of science education and end up being behind their peers later in life. Whether that was looking for jobs after high school or applying to colleges. Emrich argued that he thought theories would have a place in college level education, but the teachers that testified against the bill pointed out lots of students don't attend college, but they would benefit from learning about this type of, you know, critical thinking skills that they'd miss out on if the bill was passed. Emrich's argument, like we heard him say, is he just doesn't want children to engage in speculation.

Another argument we heard against the bill from opponents is that it would unconstitutionally handcuff the Board of Public Education, which is the entity tasked with setting school curriculum in Montana. And then local school boards can come in and go beyond that if they choose to. But that's where the Board of Public Education comes in. And there's a legal note attached to the bill that raises those same concerns. We haven't yet seen the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee takes action on this bill. So that's something we'll be watching.

Sally Mauk Rob, do you think there is a religious underpinning to Emrich's bill? And if so, what is it?

Rob Saldin Maybe so, Sally. I really don't know on this one. That's as good as theory as any, I suppose. But just in reading the text of the bill, right, putting the motivation behind it aside, it just seems like a poorly thought out piece of legislation on several fronts, and I'm awfully skeptical that this will move forward. You know, the concerns expressed by some of the students and teachers struck me as a bit over the top, talking about how it might affect the teaching of gravity and things like this. But it reflects how vague the legislation is. It also strikes me that were something like this to actually get passed, you know, figuring out how to implement it would be a nightmare. And then you've got the jurisdictional and constitutional problems that you spoke to, Holly.

Sally Mauk Well, lastly, Holly and Rob, Senator Steve Daines had a tiff with Twitter this week over his posting of a new profile picture that Twitter deemed so violent they suspended his account. But, Holly, the picture he posted is the kind of picture many Montanans routinely post on social media.

Holly Michels I think it's fair to say we have photos similar to this up, a lot of us do. It's a photo of him and his wife hunting. Pretty standard for a Montana social media account. CNN reported that Daines was sent an email from Twitter that said that the photo is what triggered this block on his account. Because the platform is unable to label images of dead animals or blood as "not safe for work," which would mean certain people could opt in to seeing them or not. We saw a lot of people post their own hunting photos in solidarity after this. You know, in Daines' photo, you could see a tiny bit of blood if you click to enlarge the image. CNN also reported that Elon Musk, who owns and runs Twitter now, personally reached out to Daines about the issue and said he was trying to fix the policy. And Musk tweeted that the provision about showing blood would be changed to say that you have to, like, really clearly see it in the profile image without being able to enlarge it or something like that. But Twitter is a pretty major platform. It's probably important to note a lot of Montanans don't engage on there in the same way as politicians or press do, or those that follow state government in politics really closely, but it is a major place for a lot of these discussions.

Sally Mauk Just to be clear, the photo shows the senator and his wife posing with a dead antelope that they had harvested. Rob, well, here's what Daines told Montana Talks host, Aaron Flint, about his conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk.

"And I said to Elon, It's important that that in the spirit of inclusivity and tolerance, which that the San Francisco elites are the most intolerant people in the world, so why don't you tolerate and include the diversity of our Montana values."

Sally Mauk Rob, San Francisco elites is a catchy phrase that rolled pretty easily off the senator's tongue.

Rob Saldin Yeah. Earlier in that interview, it struck me, I mean, you could really hear it in his voice. He's almost giddy about this, as he should be. It's great for Daines. His own staff couldn't have concocted anything better. And it really is ridiculous. I mean, of all the things we see on Twitter, this is what gets you banned? It's also the kind of thing that plays right into the old culture war stuff. That San Francisco elites bit, it's been around for decades. The original formulation came from Jeane Kirkpatrick in a memorable speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention. She was a key figure in the Reagan administration. So, it may be an old line, but it it gets the point across.

Sally Mauk I'm thinking of changing my Twitter profile picture to me in the violent grip of early spring fever. Rob and Holly, thanks so much. We'll talk again next week.

Rob Saldin Thanks Sally.

Holly Michels Thank you Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in during the legislative session online Friday afternoons and on-air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m. Subscribewherever you get your podcasts.

Today is legislative day 26 out of 90. And this week, we're talking about changes to the judicial branch, the budget surplus and tax proposals. This is The Session, a look at the politics and policy inside the Montana statehouse.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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