University of Florida students and faculty are protesting the possible appointment of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) as the institution’s next president.
Protesters disrupted a question-and-answer session Sasse attended on the school’s campus Monday, arguing his opposition to same-sex marriage and his stances on LGBTQ issues made him unfit to serve as the school’s leader.
The students and faculty protesting Sasse say he has a proven history of embracing anti-LGBTQ messages and criticizing the legislation and landmark court decisions on which modern LGBTQ rights depend.
A Change.org petition organized by Leyka Rumalla, a junior at UF, is urging the university’s board of trustees to reject a search committee’s recommendation that Sasse be elected to the post. The petition claims that Sasse’s political views “are inconsistent with the values held by students at the University of Florida.”
“They are discriminatory and unrepresentative of our students,” the petition states.
Sasse issued a statement following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, calling the decision “a disappointment.”
“Marriage brings a wife and husband together so their children can have a mother and father,” Sasse said. “As a society, we need to celebrate marriage as the best way to provide stability and opportunity for children.”
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 tried to tone down the criticism during his appearance on Monday, with the first question of the meeting centering on the Nebraska Republican’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
In response, Sasse said the Supreme Court decision affirming same-sex marriage rights, Obergefell v. Hodges, is “the law of the land” and that won’t change, adding that “inclusion” is clearly what he’s seeking , 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 the … 56,000 students here, all 30,000 faculty and staff,” Sasse said. “Every person has immeasurable value and dignity, and we need to create a community of inclusion and respect and trust where people feel heard and valued and appreciated.”
“There are certainly federal policy issues where I’ve had disagreements before about what decisions courts should make versus legislatures, but Obergefell, for example, is the law of the land, and nothing about Obergefell changes in the United States,” Sasse continued. “So your question is: do I support and affirm everyone in this community? Absolutely. And frankly, one of my jobs would be to make sure that we as a community work hard to make sure that everyone feels included, and a part of it’s making sure we understand what metrics we have to make sure we’re getting better at making people feel included.”
However, there have been questions about whether today’s Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, could overturn the Obergefell decision.
Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the six conservatives, said in a joint opinion for the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade in June that Obergefell and other judicial precedents should be reconsidered.
Momentum for the Respect for Marriage Act rose after Thomas made his contemporaneous statement, but Sasse told reporters in July it was unnecessary, accusing Democrats of voting for the bill to further divide Americans.
“Is there a single case about it? I don’t answer questions that are about hypotheticals that are just Pelosi trying to divide America with culture wars. he saiddReferring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California).
Following Sasse’s comments, protesters could be heard during his performance chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go.”
At times, the chants grew louder when a door to the room opened, with the session pausing at one point for 30 seconds while the GOP senator answered a question about in-person, hybrid and zoom classes.
“Obviously I wish they weren’t in the position they are, but I strongly support the right people protesting and exercising their freedom of expression,” Sasse said. “I wouldn’t say that I exactly welcome the protesters, but I kind of intellectually and constitutionally welcome the protesters.”
Sasse was also asked similar questions about abortion and how willing he would be to break with the GOP in the future for the top job at the school. He said the office of the university president has little to do with anything on the abortion front, and that the role and service of a deep-red state senator is “completely different.”
The student Q&A was sandwiched between similar events with faculty and school staff during Sasse’s visit to the Gainesville, Fla., campus.
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 severely limited the ability of K-12 educators to teach their students about sexual orientation and gender identity under the , which 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 about the court’s Obergefell ruling troubled him and that he would have thought twice about attending the university. if Sasse had served 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 Alligator he planned to attend a protest Monday outside Emerson Alumni Hall, where Sasse was scheduled to speak to faculty, staff and students in a series of panel discussions.
“We either have someone who is a real homophobe as our president, or we have a sleazy politician who just says what the people he’s trying to get elected want to hear,” Salle said.
According to the plan, the university’s board will formally consider Sasse’s candidacy at the meeting on 1 November.