Nebraska lawmaker threatened with censure for comparing transgender legislation with genocide

Nebraska lawmaker threatened with censure for comparing transgender legislation with genocide
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha speaks with fellow Omaha State Sens. Megan Hunt and John Cavanaugh as legislative officers consider a point of order against Machaela Cavanaugh on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
March 16th, 2023 | Zach Wendling, Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker faced a threat of censure Wednesday for alleging that a couple of bills aim to perpetrate genocide against transgender Nebraskans.

State Sen. Julie Slama speaks with Speaker John Arch and Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler at the front of the Legislature after objecting to a speech by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar offered the motion after State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha made comparisons between past genocides and two bills that she said would lead to a genocide.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha introduced the bills that Cavanaugh said “legislate hate.” They would, respectively, prohibit access to some health care for youth experiencing gender dysphoria and restrict bathrooms or sports teams on the basis of sex assigned at birth.

On Wednesday, Cavanaugh outlined “The Ten Stages of Genocide” as defined by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which states that “genocide never just happens.”

“There is always a set of circumstances which occur or which are created to build the climate in which genocide can take place,” Cavanaugh said, quoting the trust.

Slama warned Cavanaugh multiple times she would move to censure her. Slama told the Examiner that Cavanaugh’s speech minimized “the seriousness and the gravity” of the word “genocide.”

Speaker John Arch meets with State Sens. Julie Slama, left, and Machaela Cavanaugh, right, after Slama objected to a floor speech Cavanaugh made Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“We must draw a line in the sand for acceptable conduct in this Legislature, just like every other state legislature already has,” Slama said on Twitter. “Today’s action is not something I take lightly, but I refuse to sit silently while Senator Cavanaugh compares a bill protecting girls sports to the horrific mass executions of millions of people.”

State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the speaker of the Legislature, said, “we will not be taking up that motion at this time,” and senators continued debate on an underlying bill. 

Senators disagreed over whether that essentially killed the motion.

Filibuster fight continues in third week

Censure imposed once

According to Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler, censure has only been imposed once, in 1955, on then-State Sen. Sam Klaver of Omaha for participating in a blackmail scheme involving a tax on gambling devices installed in service stations.

Klaver was expelled from the Legislature but later was re-elected to his post, Metzler said.

Censuring former State Sen. Ernie Chambers was discussed more than once, and it was also brought up when then-Sen. Bill Kintner was found to have used a state-issued computer to engage in cybersex.

But no censure motion was brought against either of them. 

The fight emerged during debate on Legislative Bill 775 proposed by State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, a unrelated bill regarding the Nebraska Racetrack Gaming Act. LB 775 is the latest that Cavanaugh has filibustered since vowing to extend debate on every bill.

The confrontation also came one day after Arch announced that all-day debates will begin two weeks sooner because of the filibusters.

Cavanaugh’s actions began Feb. 23, the day after LB 574, proposed by State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, was advanced to the full Legislature. That bill could restrict youth access to puberty blockers, hormone therapies or surgeries.

LB 575, also proposed by Kauth, has been scrutinized, too. That is the bill related to bathrooms and sporting teams.

The Education Committee was scheduled to consider LB 575 on Wednesday in an executive session, where members were expected to advance the bill (five of the eight committee members have signed onto it). However, that meeting was canceled at the last minute.

Kauth prioritized LB 574, and State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood prioritized LB 575. This increases the chances both will be brought to the legislative floor for debate despite Cavanaugh’s efforts to grind the Legislature to a “standstill” to prevent their consideration.

While other states have considered or passed similar legislation, these bills haven’t been considered before in Nebraska, according to State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.

‘Genocide never just happens’

Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, developed “The Ten Stages of Genocide.” He argued that there is an opportunity at each of the earlier stages for the local or international community “to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens.”

Although Cavanaugh has said she wants to prevent the bills in question from reaching a vote, she said Wednesday she wants the Legislature to debate them and force senators to go on record about LB 574 and LB 575. 

“I want a record for the history of this genocide for those who stood by it, for those who had an opportunity to change the course of history — the direction in which we are moving as a state and a country,” Cavanaugh said. “I want the bloody hands recorded. This is a genocide. This is an assault on a population of people because they are different from you.”

Hunt said she also wants the bills to be brought for debate and then killed on the floor. 

Hunt referenced testifiers who have said members of the LGBTQ community were part of a “social contagion,” language Hunt alleged that Kauth has also used. 

“It’s the same language that’s used in genocides, it’s the same type of imagery, it’s the same type of rhetoric,” Hunt said. “Calling people part of a social contagion is disgusting language comparing them to a disease. Being trans is not a disease and no child is made wrong. They’re all exactly who they should be.”

‘Cancel culture’

Around 11:24 a.m., Slama objected to Cavanaugh saying: “We are witnessing a genocide.” 

Lawmakers gather around State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha (center) after State Sen. Julie Slama raised a point of order against Cavanaugh on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. From left are State Sens. Jen Day, John Cavanaugh, Megan Hunt, Machaela Cavanaugh, Wendy DeBoer, George Dungan and Danielle Conrad. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Citing Rule 2, Section 9 of the Legislature, Slama raised a point of order. Slama, Cavanaugh and Arch met with the clerk of the Legislature at the front of the room for a few minutes.

Slama and Arch left the legislative floor briefly, and a group of other senators huddled while they dissected the legislative rules.

About 20 minutes after Slama objected, the clerk officially read the censure motion into the record.

As senators heard the motion, they all stood in silence for at least 10 seconds, signaling a shift in the mood of the day. State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln affirmed that shift.

Arch addressed the censure motion and decided to move on to debate on the underlying bill.

Conrad argued that because of Arch’s decision, Slama’s motion was over.

Rule 2, Section 9, the “Words Excepted To” clause, states that a member “shall not be held to answer, nor be subject to the censure of the Legislature therefore, if further debate or other business shall have intervened.”

Conrad added that there is little established precedent for the rule’s use and that the rule is designed for profane or obscene language.

“Each member has the ability and the opportunity to deliberate how they see fit, and the remedy to speech that you find distasteful is to meet it with more speech,” Conrad said on the floor. “It is not to engage in cancel culture. It is not to engage in big government censorship. It is not to undermine the First Amendment.”

“And that is what Senator Slama is asking us to do,” she continued.

Slama said she met the requirements of the rule as the clerk read her motion into the record. She believes that Arch could bring her motion up for debate at a future point.

This is not the first time Slama and Cavanaugh have sparred on the floor over a point of order. During debate in 2022, Cavanaugh called for a point of order because of Slama’s comments aimed at her. (That point of order was not recognized and did not lead to any action.)

Previous Holocaust comparisons

Critics of the censure motion, including Tim Royers, president of the Millard Education Association, who ran against Kauth in 2022, questioned why Slama chose to censure Cavanaugh but not criticize others who have compared COVID-19 to the Holocaust, such as Kauth.

Kauth made the comments in a Dec. 20, 2021, radio interview with KLIN. She was not an elected official at the time.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha speaks at a committee hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Ari Kohen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and director of the Norman and Bernice Harris Center for Judaic Studies, told the Examiner that it’s important to understand the “real consequences from effectively targeting a minority population.” 

Kohen said he sees the point Cavanaugh was making and understands why those who support Kauth’s legislation would feel attacked. He added that there can be no direct comparison to the Holocaust because it — like all genocides — had its own circumstances.

Still, Slama said there’s a “huge difference” between the comments Kauth and Cavanaugh made.

“I think you’re comparing apples and oranges there, for sure,” Slama said.

Cavanaugh not backing down

Cavanaugh, speaking later on the floor, called the situation “a bit overwhelming” and said she would have preferred it if Arch had scheduled the censure motion for debate. It would show which members of the Legislature “support free speech,” she said.

“But I’m not going to be intimidated into sitting down. I’m not going to be intimidated into stopping to advocate for the people who are being hurt by this legislation,” Cavanaugh said. “I am not going to stop. Period.”

Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

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