The Florida Senate has approved the controversial parental rights legislation governing classroom instruction on LGBTQ matters, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents. Now, after hours of impassioned debate and even protest from students, the bill is ready for the Governor’s desk.
Senators accepted the bill in a 22-17 vote Tuesday morning, with most Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. Two Republican legislators, Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jennifer Bradley, broke from their party and voted against the bill. While Brandes had already expressed frustration with the bill, Bradley decided to vote down on it out of concern “about the message it sends.”
“I want to support parental rights in school but I’m also mindful of our Legislature’s voice. I’m a mom to three children and I love all of the children in the state of Florida, and I’m concerned about the message it sends,” she said.
The Senate voted on the House version of the legislation, which cleared that chamber in a 69-47 vote two weeks ago. The proposal (HB 1557) would limit classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity, a move Republican leadership says would bolster parental rights. Under the leadership of President Wilton Simpson, the bill was slated for only one committee stop — the Senate Appropriations Committee — where the legislation was approved last week.
Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who filed the Senate version of the bill (SB 1834), presented the legislation to the Senate.
“This has not been an easy bill for me, believe me,” Baxley said.
The measure 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.” The legislation does not restrict the topics from being barred across all ages if the school district deems the instruction age-inappropriate.
In being questioned about the purpose of the bill, Baxley asserted, “These topics (sexual orientation or gender identity) are not suitable for K through 3.”
Parents who think a classroom discussion was not age-appropriate or who are unsupportive of a district’s policies would be able to sue for damages and attorneys fees.
Baxley came under fire during debate for comments he made Monday during questions, saying that he brought the bill because there is a cultural shift encouraging students to “come out.”
“Why is everybody now all about coming out when you’re in school? And there really is a dynamic of concern of how much of these are genuine … experiences and how many of them are just kids trying on different kinds of things they hear about,” he said. “There’s something wrong with how we’re emphasizing this, and all of a sudden overnight they’re a celebrity. … I know parents are very concerned about the departure of the core belief systems and values.”
Palm Beach Democratic Sen. Lori Berman called Baxley on the comment during debate.
“We heard yesterday that the genesis of this bill was to try and prevent what the sponsor believes to be a problem, that somehow more and more children are becoming gay, that it’s just a fad for them to make them into celebrities,” Berman said. “So let’s be clear, that’s what this bill is about.”
Miami Dade Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo also cited Baxley’s comments from Monday, arguing courts will throw out the bill for “invidious discrimination.”
“That, ladies and gentlemen, will be what the court points to and quotes as a prima facie case, on its face, of invidious discrimination for what we have targeted and we have selected as a protected class,” Pizzo said. “Why is drug use discussion not prohibited? The issue is, why is gender identity and sexual orientation specifically prohibited when there are so many other very difficult mature subjects that are not exempted?”
Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is the first openly gay state Senator, also pointed out how supporters of the bill who say it is not about members of the LGBTQ community contradict the targeted language of the bill.
“We made it clear that this bill is about one thing, section three — sexual orientation, gender identity,” Jones said. “The bill sponsor says schools are socially engineering children. The president of the Florida Family Policy Council called this the ‘Don’t turn my son into a daughter’ bill. And then someone else says that children are confused.”
Jones, along with Broward Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, also relayed confusion on why the legislation is needed if the Florida Department of Education already prohibits sexual education for students before fourth grade.
Democratic legislators also criticized the vague language of the legislation and alluded to a veiled attempt at a culture war.
“Florida’s educators are not indoctrinating young children with age-inappropriate or developmentally inappropriate curriculum. They’re not secretly pushing the gay agenda, the trans agenda, the woke agenda. It’s just not happening,” Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book said. “The message this bill sends goes far beyond the words contained in the text.”
In addition to instructional guidelines, the legislation also would 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 only are 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.
Republican supporters of the bill pointed to that provision, hunkering down on the parental rights aspect of the legislation. Pasco County Republican Sen. Danny Burgess said the bill puts parents back in charge, and protects children’s innocence “for just a while longer.”
“Everyone here wants the best for their child. Growing up today is very hard. Raising kids is so challenging on so many levels, no matter what your worldview is,” Burgess said. “There’s nothing wrong with letting children hold on to their innocence for just a few more years, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It’s OK to let a little boy want to be Captain America, and a little girl want to be Rapunzel, it’s OK for children to be children for just a little while longer.”
Burgess also argued there is an “effort to inject these types of discussions” into the classroom.
“Sex ed starts in the fourth grade at a basic level. That is when we have decided that children are old enough to start having these conversations as a state, this bill does nothing more than codify that,” he said. “There is a reality, and there is an effort, to inject these types of discussions into younger and younger age groups. As a parent of three young children, my wife and I see it every week, if not nearly every day.”
Lee County Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues called the bill “good policy” for codifying the current standard.
“Children that age shouldn’t have curriculum providing instruction on those topics,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t look at legislation through the prism of how people on the outside say it makes them feel, because if we all use that prism, we would never pass any policy.”
Other supporters got more personal about LBGTQ issues, with Miami-Dade Republican Sen. Ileana Garcia sharing about a family member who was transgender, insisting that “gay is not a permanent thing, LGBT is not a permanent thing.”
“This isn’t at all about targeting. I think this is about perhaps rerouting responsibilities back to the parents,” Garcia said.
On Monday, Democratic senators attempted to amend the bill during its second hearing on the floor, unsuccessfully putting forward amendments that would add protections for LGBTQ students as well as clarify the vague language of the bill.
The legislation has been the subject of controversy, with waves of Florida students protesting the legislation in a last-ditch plea with state Senators to vote it down.
It has also drawn public criticism from physicians, members of the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ advocacy organizations, the Florida PTA and ACLU Florida at committee hearings. Proponents of the bill include Florida Citizens Alliance, Christian Family Coalition and the Florida Family Rights Council.
The bill also has drawn national attention, including criticism from the White House, which denounced the bill as “hateful.”
The version approved by the House Thursday varied slightly from its previous Senate counterpart, seemingly attempting to address previous criticisms of vague language. The bill follows up on last year’s “Parental Bill of Rights,” which said public schools cannot infringe on the “fundamental rights” of parents to direct the upbringing of their child.