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The Florida Senate’s Education Committee has passed a controversial new piece of legislation aimed at restricting schools in the Sunshine State from teaching pupils about sexual orientation and gender issues, with teachers opening themselves up to lawsuits should they fail to comply.
Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill but formally known as Senate Bill 1834 “Parental Rights in Education”, the text of the legislation states: “A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
Further, it explicitly states that parents “may bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgement that a school district procedure or practice violates this paragraph and seek injunctive relief. A court may award damages and shall award reasonable attorney fees and court costs to a parent who receives declaratory or injunctive relief”.
An additional amendment to the bill would further require schools to disclose whether a child is LGBT+ to their parents within six weeks of learning that they are not straight.
The latest clause was denounced by Democratic state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith for making the bill “even more dangerous for vulnerable kids with a STATE-MANDATED outing of LGBTQ students to parents”, which he said would bring “devastating consequences for our youth”.
State legislators are scheduled to debate the bill on Tuesday 22 February.
Should it be signed into law, its terms would come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023.
But the bill has attracted widespread criticism in Florida and beyond, with opponents arguing it would effectively silence vulnerable LGBT+ students and hinder or harm their personal development while potentially violating educators’ freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.
US president Joe Biden tweeted reassurances to students earlier this month, telling them: “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community – especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill – to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also denounced the legislation.
“Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom,” she said. “Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most – LGBTQI+ students, who are already vulnerable to bullying and violence just for being themselves.”
Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, has argued: “It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences and their families. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them so.
“This bill does nothing to help and support our youth. It’s meant to stigmatise LGBTQ youth and family members, and to make teachers fearful of providing a welcoming and inclusive classroom.”
Speaking on ABC’s The View, CNN commentator Ana Navarro said the message it sends is “a very chilling one” for the LGBT+ community: “You are not welcome here.”
But the bill’s originator, Republican state representative Joe Harding, insists its intention is simply to keep parents “in the know and involved on what’s going on” with their children’s education and that its critics are “absolutely misinformed on what exactly the bill does”.
One outspoken supporter of his proposal is the Trump-aligned state governor and possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.
Speaking at a press conference this week, Governor DeSantis said: “My goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes.”
Equality Florida has condemned that endorsement, arguing in a tweet that Mr DeSantis is “using anti-LGBTQ legislation as a springboard to serve his national political ambitions”.
“His political agenda is driven not by the real pressing needs of our state but his desire to peel away Trump supporters as the two jockey for the 2024 GOP presidential primary,” the group added. “He is willing to inflict harm on the most vulnerable in FL in order to shore up his extremist base.”