Following Florida law, other states seek to restrict some LGBTQ talk in schools

Washington (CNN) Bills similar to controversial Florida legislation that bans certain instructions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools are being considered in at least 15 states, according to data compiled by the ‘American Civil Liberties Union and reviewed by CNN.

Some of the bills go further than Florida’s law, dubbed by its critics “Don’t Say Gay,” which sparked a furious nationwide discussion about LGBTQ rights, education policy and the parental involvement in the classroom.

The debate reflects the sensitive forces of LGBTQ rights growing increasingly bottom-up at a time when some parents are seeking to contribute more to their children’s education, particularly in the wake of the uproar caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republicans, arguing that discussions of gender identity and sexuality are inappropriate for young children, have used the “parental rights” banner to push for a reduction in such conversations in schools, even as opinions on the question vary greatly from parent to parent. LGBTQ rights advocates see a conscious decision to stigmatize a vulnerable slice of American society and a potential chilling effect on what they believe to be urgent discussions.

“These bills are premised on the belief that queer identities are contagious while heterosexual and cisgender identities are somehow more pure or correct,” Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist for the ACLU, told CNN. “Truly, every student has the right to have their own life stories reflected in them, and every student benefits from stories that serve as a window into the lives of people different from them. Censorship and homogeneity only benefit person while denying all students an equal chance to learn, grow and thrive.”

The ACLU has tracked a total of 61 bills in 26 states, though efforts in several states, including Mississippi and Montana, have already failed. Earlier this month, Arkansas approved restrictions against such discussions through fourth grade.

Ultimately, it is unclear how many bills will be enacted. A Human Rights Campaign report released in January said that of 315 bills they deemed anti-LGBTQ introduced nationwide last year, only 29 – less than 10% – became law.

Efforts resemble Florida law

Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law prohibits classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not appropriate for age or development of students in accordance with state standards”. It also requires districts to notify a student’s parent if there is a significant change in their mental or emotional well-being, which LGBTQ rights advocates say could lead to some students being revealed to their parents. without the student’s knowledge or consent.

“We will continue to recognize that in the State of Florida, parents have a fundamental role in the education, health care and well-being of their children. We will not budge from this,” Governor Ron said. DeSantis, a Republican, when he signed the bill in March 2022.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that advocates for issues such as LGBTQ rights, Florida’s law has been the catalyst for bills currently being considered in other states, including:

An Iowa bill passed by the State House last week that would ban the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade. An Oregon bill prohibiting discussion of gender identity in kindergarten through third grade without parental notification and consent. Legislation in Alaska that would require parental notification two weeks before “any activity, class, or program that includes content involving gender identity, human reproduction, or sexual matters is provided to a child.” Several Florida bills that seek to double last year’s legislation, including one that requires ‘sex to be determined by biology and reproductive function at birth’ and another that prohibits employees from using pronouns that do not match the gender of the student.

A recurring theme in the legislation is the requirement for school employees to notify a parent if a child expresses a desire to be addressed by a pronoun that matches their gender identity if different from the one assigned to the birth.

“We’re not saying you can’t do this,” Republican Washington State Senator Phil Fortunato, who introduced legislation that would limit teaching about gender and sexual identity to CNN, told CNN. kindergarten through third grade. “I mean, I don’t agree with that, but, you know, if the parents and the child agree, it’s their decision. But they shouldn’t do it behind the parents’ backs. when their child goes to school. And that’s the purpose of the bill.”

Missouri’s bill is unique in scope: No employee of a public or charter school would be permitted to “encourage a student under the age of eighteen to adopt a gender identity or sexual orientation,” although the law meant by “encourage” is not explained. School officials would be required to notify parents immediately if their child confides in them “uncomfortable or confused” about their “official identity” and teachers would not be allowed to refer to a student by their preferred pronouns without obtain parental approval first.

The bill specifically calls for whistleblower protections for school employees who report violators, who would then face “charges to suspend or revoke the teacher’s teaching license based on ‘charges of incompetence, immorality or dereliction of duty’.

In a blog post titled “The Evil Perpetrated on Our Children”, Missouri State Senator Mike Moon, who sponsored the legislation, called it “a lie that boys can be turned into girls and girls can be turned into boys”.

“One thing we have to agree on, however, is that parents are responsible for the upbringing of their children,” he continued. “To this end, parents must be involved in the education of their children.”

Likely legal challenges

The measures are likely to face swift legal challenges if passed, though at least two efforts to block Florida’s law have so far failed to get it off the books. One such lawsuit, brought by a group of students, parents and teachers in Florida, was dismissed last month by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump appointee, who said the challengers were unable to show that they had been wronged by the law.

“The plaintiffs have shown strident disagreement with the new law, and they have alleged facts to show that its very existence causes them profound pain and disappointment,” Winsor wrote in his order. “But to claim federal jurisdiction, they must allege more. Their failure to do so necessitates their dismissal.”

At the heart of opponents’ concerns is the vagueness in the language of the laws as they are written. LGBTQ issues are generally not an integral part of public school curricula, they point out, leaving educators with the prospect of having to figure out where the legal fault lines are drawn with nothing less than their careers at stake.

“What counts as class discussion? Class instruction? Does it just include the class curriculum?” Alice O’Brien, Alice O’Brien’s general counsel, asked in an interview with CNN. “For example, does it include teachers’ lesson plans, or is it broad enough to include class discussion? A teacher answering a student’s question, a teacher perhaps intervening in an incident where a student bullies another student because of that student’s prestige, sexual orientation, or gender identity? It’s very difficult to know what is prohibited and what is not.”

There are other concerns. Naomi G. Goldberg, deputy director of MAP, worries about a “chilling effect on teachers themselves in terms of their ability to support students in the classroom as well as the students themselves in the classroom”.

A similar point was made in a CNN op-ed last year by Claire McCully, a trans mother who is outraged by Florida law.

“Like any other parent, I expect my family to be welcomed and accepted by others at school,” McCully wrote. “And of course that acceptance might be more likely if some of the children’s stories read in classrooms feature two fathers, two mothers, or even a trans mother.”

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, told CNN that the use of a student’s preferred pronouns is harmless to other students but deeply meaningful to trans children themselves. She called for a cautious approach that recognizes the need for schools to be a safe space for vulnerable children, particularly if there is a risk that leaving a child before they are ready could lead to the “rejection from family or even violence”.

“No one is suggesting that this is information that will not be relevant to parents,” she said. “But what we’re saying is that young people should be able to have that conversation with their parents on their own terms and not force a third party to broker a conversation that could put that child at risk.”

CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.


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