The House Judiciary Committee spent the last two hours of its Thursday meeting in debate and public testimony as it heard the controversial school-parental rights legislation, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents.
The House panel approved a committee substitute of the legislation (HB 1557), sponsored by Republican Rep. Joe Harding, in a 13-7 party-line vote. The proposal now heads to the House Floor. The version approved by the committee Thursday night varied slightly from its Senate counterpart, seemingly attempting to address previous criticisms of vague language.
The bill presented to the committee would ban classroom “instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” for students in kindergarten through third grade, or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
That portion of the legislation took a slight turn from its previous version, also put forward in the Senate, which was broader in prohibiting school districts from “encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate.”
Parents who think a classroom discussion was not age-appropriate or who are unsupportive of a district’s policies would still be able to sue for damages and attorney’s fees.
“The concern is that there is instruction that could continue to push, and lead to, whether you want to say it’s stress, on that child to have discussion in those ages,” Harding said. “Focus should be on reading and math and the basics that come with being in kindergarten to third grade.”
Although the legislation mentions grade levels, it does not restrict the topics from being barred across all ages if the school district deems the instruction age-inappropriate.
Harding fumbled through questioning from committee Democrats, who inquired about definitions within the legislation, including what sexual orientation meant and just what the bill was attempting to prohibit. As presented to the committee, the legislation also appeared to have some drafting errors.
“What we’re specifically doing in this bill, what we’re preventing, is instruction that in kindergarten through third grade — 6-year-olds — having instruction that would, that would lead to, whether it be some type of, you know, their sexual orientation being the gender that they identify,” Harding said.
Opponents of the bill called out the vague responses in debate, with Miami Democratic Rep. Mike Grieco calling the legislation a “Trojan horse.”
“This bill is a Trojan horse,” Grieco said. “Comments in this committee and comments from the sponsor of the bill have been that ‘This is limited to kindergarten through third, we’re talking about 6-year-olds’ — but that’s not what the language says.”
Greico also expressed concern after hearing proponents of the bill, who made anti-gay comments, that it could be used to bar discussion on LGBTQ matters in some districts as a whole.
“I am very concerned based upon some of the folks that I’ve heard from today, that there are certain areas in Florida that think that it is never age-appropriate to talk about gender identity or sexual orientation, regardless as to what arbitrary definition you place on those two terms,” he said.
Democratic ranking member Rep. Fentrice Driskell, whose opening remarks in debate resulted in an eruption from some public supporters of the bill, also criticized the interpretive language of the legislation.
“Whatever you intended this bill to be, it is not that anymore. It’s very clear that the proponents of this bill believe in anti-gay rhetoric. It’s suppressive,” Driskell said before being interrupted by audience members. “I’m concerned even with the plain text of the bill; it has problems. We couldn’t get a straight answer — pun intended — on the definition of sexual orientation.”
Driskell also expressed concern about the potential slew of lawsuits school districts could face by passing the legislation.
“I’m very concerned about opening this new cause of action against school districts, and we’re not giving them any money for it,” she said.
In addition to instructional guidelines, the legislation would also limit confidentiality between students and school personnel, requiring that a school district “may not adopt procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being, or a change in related services or monitoring, or that encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information.”
School personnel are only permitted to withhold such information from a parent “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect,” the bill reads.
Critics noted some students might have parents who are hostile to the news their child is a member of the LBGTQ community and might want to confide in a teacher. Children from LBGTQ families might also innocently discuss their families in ways other parents would find objectionable, critics of the bill said.
Over 80 public commenters testified on the bill in Thursday’s committee.
Those speaking against the bill included physicians, members of the LGBTQ community, the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, the National LGBT Youth Task Force Action Fund, Equality Florida, the National Association of Social Workers, Florida PTA and ACLU Florida.
Proponents of the bill included several members of The Villages, Florida Citizens Alliance, Christian Family Coalition, and the Florida Family Rights Council.
With the alterations made to the legislation, Harding pushed back on the bill’s nickname as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” proposal.
“Nowhere within this bill are we banning a word,” Harding said. “I think that the school district should just work with the parents and do overall what we have been trying to implement in Florida, which is an education system that involves and engages in parents and empowers parents.”
He also received support from Republican counterparts, including Rep. Mike Beltran, who called the bill a “modest proposal.”
“It just says that we don’t talk about these sorts of things till the kids are out of third grade,” Beltran said. “If you’re a same-sex household or your child may be LGBT or something like that, then maybe you do address it earlier, and maybe you should, and that’s an appropriate conversation. But that’s an appropriate conversation to have at home at a time when the parents think.”
He also addressed concerns that the bill would increase suicide attempts of LGBTQ students, who already face a heightened risk of suicidal ideation.
“I’ve never heard of third grade or lower, or younger child, committing suicide. I guess I could be wrong,” Beltran said. “The suggestion is, if they don’t learn about these sorts of things in the school by third grade, then they’re gonna commit suicide. I just don’t buy that.”
Seminole Republican Rep. Scott Plakon also chimed in with support, saying the movement to accept members of the LGBTQ community happened in such a short period that parents have a right to be concerned.
“There is a movement, OK, for the things we’re talking about today, they have lobbyist, advocates,” he said. “Is it ridiculous that parents would be concerned about this movement targeting their children? I don’t think that’s a ridiculous concern. And I don’t think anybody could agree that parents shouldn’t have the right to be concerned about that.”
Plakon also addressed the legislation as part of the culture wars shaping this Session’s priorities. He rhetorically asked, “Who started the culture wars?” in response to his comment on the LGBTQ rights movement.
The Senate version of the bill (SB 1834), sponsored by Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, is advancing to its second of three committees.