Opponents say Ohio's proposed parent's bill of rights is increasingly anti-LGBTQ

Ohio lawmakers are debating a bill that could restrict how topics like sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in public schools.

A controversial bill described by supporters as giving parents more control over their children's education is being slammed by education and LGBTQ groups as anti-gay, anti-transgender legislation.

"I don’t want us to get further and further and closer and closer to the infamous legislation in the state of Florida, the so-called 'Don’t Say Gay' bill," Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, said. "This is dangerous for education here in Ohio."

House Bill 8 began as a bill requiring schools to notify parents before teaching any "sexually explicit instructional materials." Districts also had to disclose student health and wellness information to parents "unless that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect."

Related Ohio legislation article: Ohio Republicans introduce House Bill 616, their version of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' law

In April, Republicans removed that last sentence over the objections of Democrats, saying teachers do not have the right to withhold information from parents.

And on Tuesday, the committee's Republican members changed sexually explicit to "sexuality content," defined "as any oral or written instruction, presentation, image, or description of sexual concepts or gender ideology."

They also added biological sex to the list of topics requiring prior notification. And a line that explicitly stated, "any request by a student to identify as a gender that does not align with the student's biological sex" would qualify as a change in student health and well-being.

"The intent is not to exclude or prohibit that kind of instruction," Rep. Adam Bird, R-New Richmond, said. "The intent is to let parents know that kind of teaching is coming. … It’s about parent notification."

Democrats on the House Primary and Secondary Committee disagreed.

"Is this amendment intended to be an anti-gay, anti-trans bill targeting the most vulnerable children," Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, said. "Because it’s lining up to look like the anti-gay bills going around the country."

More than a dozen states have introduced or passed some version of HB 8. Florida's law, which was enacted in March 2022, is the most well-known because of its nickname, "Don't Say Gay." The different bills vary on things like penalties and scope, but each one aims to restrict how public schools discuss gender identity and sexual orientation.

"We have already seen in other states how phrases like 'sexually explicit content' can be weaponized even if it appears to be benign," Equality Ohio Policy Director Maria Bruno said. "They're creating a situation where there has to be a pre-clearance of any mention of LGBTQ identity. That is inherently going to have a chilling effect and perhaps even intimidate teachers out of disclosing their own identity."

But conservative groups like Parents Rights In Education see HB 8 as a much-needed set of protections against activist teachers and districts who assume Christian parents won't support "students that have gender identity issues."

"Teachers are not trained mental health professionals. Yet schools are diagnosing and treating mental health problems without parental permission," Director Lisa Breedlove Chaffee told committee members in April.

Related article: Ohio bill could mandate sharing student info even if teachers suspect parental abuse

Chaffee and other parents told lawmakers they also worry some teachers "encourage" their students not to tell parents about their gender identity questions.

"If it's happening one time, it's one time too many," Chaffee said.

When asked whether she could see any situation — like suspected abuse — where a teacher could reasonably withhold information from a parent, Chaffee said no.

"Parents need to be notified, period," Chafee said. "God forbid, if there is suspected abuse, then that's what we have child protective services for."

This isn't the first time Ohio Republicans have tried to pass a version of this legislation. Another parent's bill of rights was introduced in the last General Assembly as well as a bill to restrict classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues and "any other concept that the state board of education defines as divisive or inherently racist."

The GOP has also introduced legislation to ban transgender girls from female sports teams, prohibit doctors from prescribing hormone therapy to transgender minors and ban transgender children from using certain bathrooms in school.

"They seem to be desperate for some red meat about trans kids," Bruno said. "It just seems like the legislators are going out of their way to further alienate some of the most vulnerable kids in our state."

Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Opponents say Ohio's parent's bill of rights will harm LGBTQ children