LGBTQ+ rights group sues over Iowa law banning school library books, gender identity discussion

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Several families are suing to stop Iowa's new law that bans books from school libraries, forbids teachers from raising LGBTQ+ issues and forces educators in some cases to out the gender identity of students to their parents.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal announced the federal lawsuit Tuesday, saying the law passed earlier this year by the Republican-led Legislature and enacted this fall “seeks to silence LGBTQ+ students, erase any recognition of LGBTQ+ people from public schools, and bans books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content.”

Under the law, educators are forbidden from raising gender identity and sexual orientation issues with students through grade six, and school administrators are required to notify parents if students ask to change their pronouns or names. The law's section that bans books depicting sex acts from school libraries includes an exception for religious texts, like the Christian Bible.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Iowa Safe Schools, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ children, and seven Iowa students, ranging in age from fourth to 12th grades, and their families. It seeks an injunction blocking the law while the lawsuit plays out in court and ultimately seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional as a violation of students' and teachers' free speech and equal protection rights.

“The First Amendment does not allow our state or our schools to remove books or issue blanket bans on discussion and materials simply because a group of politicians or parents find them offensive,” ACLU attorney Thomas Story said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who signed the measure into law, defended it as “protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content.”

“Books with graphic depictions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools,” Reynolds said in a written statement.

One plaintiff, Iowa City high school senior Puck Carlson, said in an online news conference that the law is having a devastating effect on Iowa LGBTQ+ students. She has watched her younger LGBTQ+ sister struggle to feel safe in school since the law took effect, she said.

“School is one of the main places that children read, and being able to access literature in which you can see yourself is instrumental to a student’s discovery of themselves,” Carlson said. “It certainly was to me. So removing these books not only makes people less visible, but it also stops students from discovering and being true to themselves.”

Penalties for violating the law will go into effect Jan. 1 and place administrators, teachers, librarians and other school staff at risk of disciplinary action, including termination and loss of their state professional education license.

Schools across Iowa have pulled hundreds of titles from their shelves in response to the law, the ACLU said. Many of the banned books contain content of particular relevance to LGBTQ+ students, including LGBTQ+ characters, historical figures or themes.

“As a result of the ban, LGBTQ+ students are denied the comfort of narratives that include LGBTQ+ characters and the solace that they are not alone,” the ACLU said.

Republicans have largely backed such laws in Iowa and other states in recent years that prohibit teachers from raising gender identity and sexual orientation issues, restrict the restrooms transgender students can use, and ban treatments like puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans minors. Many are facing challenges in court.

Republican lawmakers say the laws are designed to affirm parents’ rights and protect children. The issues have become flashpoints in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

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This story was first published on November 28, 2023. It was updated on November 29, 2023, to correct the name of an organization helping bring the lawsuit. The organization’s name is Lambda Legal, not Lambda.