Equality Florida, joined by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a handful of families, has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis in an effort to overturn parental rights legislation governing classroom instruction on LGBTQ matters, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents.
The organization filed the lawsuit Thursday, just days after the Governor signed the bill into law. The lawsuit does not come as a surprise, with Equality Florida announcing it would prep for legal action as soon as the legislation cleared the Legislature.
The lawsuit, detailed in an 80-page complaint, names the Governor, the Florida State Board of Education, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and a slew of school districts as the defendants.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs call HB 1557 an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools.” The complaint defines the legislation as a “sweeping, vague ban covering any instruction on ‘sexual orientation and gender identity,'” with an “enforcement scheme designed to maximize the chilling effect of this prohibition.”
The lawsuit outlines criticisms and concerns of the bill that critics have pointed to since its inception in the Legislature — namely, vague language and its potential chilling effect on classroom discussion of LGBTQ topics.
What does the legislation do? Well, lawmakers have different interpretations, but the language of the measure bans 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.
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. Republican leadership says the measure will bolster parental rights.
Opponents of the legislation, however, as stated in the complaint, allege it violates “principles of free speech and equal protection by seeking to censor discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity that recognize and respect LGBTQ people and their families.” The lawsuit also cites due process, saying that by using broad and vague terms, the legislation will have a chilling effect on speech. Overall, it “piles one violation on top of another,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit also cites comments made by the Senate sponsor of the bill, Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who came under fire during the Senate debate for comments he made during questions, saying that he brought the bill because there is a cultural shift encouraging students to “come out.”
“The premise of these statements is fear that LGBTQ students might live their true identities in school and be met with acceptance rather than state-sanctioned hostility targeting their protected characteristics,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit continued to cite the bill’s move through the legislative process, addressing the attempts by Democrats to adopt amendments to add protections for LGBTQ students and further define the legislation.
“The fact that these amendments failed further demonstrates the law’s true purpose,” the complaint reads. “Florida law already requires that health education, including instruction on “human sexuality,” “(p)rovide instruction and material that is appropriate for the grade and age of the student.” H.B. 1557 is intended to (and will) stifle discussion about LGBTQ people, families, and issues, in response to lawmakers’ stated concerns about LGBTQ persons and issues having any presence in schools.”
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 can only 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.
The Governor’s Office sent Florida Politics a statement in response to the lawsuit, calling it a “political Hail-Mary to undermine parental rights in Florida.”
“Unsurprisingly, many of the parties to this suit are advocacy groups with publicly stated political agendas,” the statement read. “This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools.”
The Governor’s Office also pushed back against the allegations that the law violates the First Amendment.
“This law does not chill speech — instead it returns speech on these topics to the parents,” the Governor’s Office stated. “The law does not prohibit student-prompted discussion in the classroom. The law does not prohibit teachers from having opinions, lifestyles, or advocacy in their personal right on their own time, and this law does not prohibit teachers from responding to student questions.”
In responding, DeSantis’ Office also came down on Disney. The entertainment monolith and Republican leadership have been at odds during the last few weeks because of the bill, which Disney has criticized.
“It’s interesting to see that Disney did not directly join the suit as a named Plaintiff, given their recent activism,” the Governor’s Office stated. “To the extent that Disney has funded these efforts, parents beware: the dollars you spend to make little boys’ and girls’ dreams come true are being used to sexualize your children in school.”
The bill has led to hours of impassioned debate and protest from students. It even garnered national flak, from the White House to Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony. The Governor slammed bill opponents during his signing, saying those who disagree with the legislation “support sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”
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.
The legislation is slated to take effect July 1, before the start of the new school year.