Senate

Florida students protest Sasse appointment over LGBTQ issues

University of Florida students and faculty are protesting the possible naming of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) as the institution’s next president.

Protesters interrupted a question-and-answer session attended by Sasse on the school’s campus on Monday, where they argued his opposition to same-sex marriage and his positions on LGBTQ issues made him unsuitable to serve as the school’s leader.

The students and faculty protesting Sasse say he has a documented history of embracing anti-LGBTQ messaging and criticizing the legislation and landmark judicial decisions on which modern LGBTQ rights hinge.

Change.org petition organized by Leyka Rumalla, a junior at UF, urges the university’s board of trustees to reject the recommendation by a search committee that Sasse be selected for the post. The petition argues that Sasse’s political views “do not align with the values that the students at the University of Florida hold.”

“They are discriminatory and non-representative of our student population,” the petition states.

Sasse issued a statement following the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states that called the decision “a disappointment.”

“Marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mom and dad,” Sasse said. “As a society, we need to celebrate marriage as the best way to provide stability and opportunity for kids.”

More than seven years later, preserving the “sanctity of marriage” is still listed as a top priority on Sasse’s website, and the Nebraska senator has been critical of the House-passed Respect for Marriage Act — federal legislation that would address a national patchwork of marriage laws by requiring all states to recognize same-sex and interracial unions as legally valid.

The senator sought to quell the criticism during his Monday appearance, where the first question of the session centered on the Nebraska Republican’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

In response, Sasse said the Supreme Court’s decision affirming same-sex marriage rights, Obergefell v. Hodges, is the “law of the land” and that won’t be changing, adding that “inclusion” is squarely what he seeks if and when he takes over as head of the university.

“I believe in the universal dignity and the immeasurable worth of every single person. All the tens of millions of Floridians, all … 56,000 students here, all 30,000 faculty and staff,” Sasse said. “Every person has immeasurable worth and dignity, and we need to create a community of inclusion and respect and trust where people feel heard and appreciated and cherished.”

“There are definitely federal policy issues where I’ve had disputes before about which decisions courts should be making versus legislatures, but Obergefell, for example, is the law of the land and nothing about Obergefell is changing in the United States,“ Sasse continued. “So your question is: do I support and affirm everybody in this community? Absolutely. And frankly, one of my jobs would be to make sure that we as a community work hard for everybody to feel included, and one piece of that is making sure we understand what metrics we have to make sure we’re getting better at making people feel included.”

There have been questions, however, about whether today’s Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, could overrule the Obergefell decision.

Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the six conservatives, said in a concurring opinion to the ruling overturning Roe v. Wade in June that Obergefell and other due process precedents should be reconsidered.

Momentum for the Respect for Marriage Act increased after Thomas issued his concurrent opinion, but Sasse told reporters in July that it was unnecessary, accusing Democrats of voting in favor of the bill to further divide Americans.

“Is there a single case about it? I’m not not answering questions that are about hypotheticals that are just Pelosi trying to divide America with culture wars,” he said, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

After Sasse’s comments, protesters could be heard during his appearance chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go.”

At times, the chants became louder when a door to the room would open, with the session at one point pausing for 30 seconds while the GOP senator was answering a question about in-person, hybrid and zoom classes.

“Obviously, I wish they didn’t have the position they have, but I strongly support the right people to protest and exercise their free speech rights,: Sasse said. “I won’t say I precisely welcome the protesters, but I sort of intellectually and constitutionally welcome the protesters.”

Sasse also received similar questions about abortion and how willing he will be to break with the GOP in the future in the top job at the school. He said that the office of the university’s president has little to do with anything on the abortion front and that the role and serving as the senator of a deep-red state are “completely different.”

The student Q&A was sandwiched between similar events with faculty and school employees during Sasse’s visit to the campus in Gainesville, Fla.

Some University of Florida students have said they worry about the campus’s future under Sasse’s leadership, especially in a state that earlier this year heavily restricted K-12 educators’ ability to teach their students about sexual orientation and gender identity under what has become known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

RJ Della Salle, an openly gay freshman at UF studying political science, told the school’s student newspaper the Independent Florida Alligator that Sasse’s comments on the Court’s Obergefell ruling troubled him and that he would have thought twice about attending the university if Sasse had been serving as its president when Salle was still applying to colleges.

Salle, who lives in the Lavender Living Learning Community for LGBTQ students at UF, told the Alligator he planned to attend a protest on Monday outside Emerson Alumni Hall, where Sasse was slated to speak with faculty, staff and students in a series of panel discussions.

“We either have someone who’s a genuine homophobe as our president or we have a sleazy politician who just says what the people that he’s trying to get elected by want to hear,” Salle said.

The university’s board of trustees is scheduled to formally consider Sasse’s candidacy at its Nov. 1 meeting.

Tags abortion rights Ben Sasse Ben Sasse Gay Marriage Supreme Court University of Florida
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