House parental rights bill advances prohibiting some schoolhouse discussions of LGBTQ issues

Florida Politics | By Anne Geggis | January 20, 2022

The bill is widely regarded as one of several measure advancing ‘culture wars’ this Session

A bill giving parents more information about their children’s school experience and installing more strict regulation of LGBTQ instruction for younger students received its first committee nod Thursday. The meeting featured strenuous objections from those who worry it will make teachers fearful of some topics and chill schoolhouse conversations, especially those regarding LGBTQ issues.

The House Education and Employment Committee approved Republican Rep. Joe Harding’s Parental Rights in Education bill (HB 1557) largely along party lines, with Democrats opposed. It is legislation some see as part of the culture wars shaping this Session’s priorities.

“This bill is about defending the most awesome responsibility a person can have: being a parent,” Harding said. “That job can only be given to you by above.”

The bill is akin to the Parents’ Bill of Rights measure passed last year that also drew objections from the LBGTQ community. The law later provided a legal avenue to stop schools from requiring students to wear face masks over their parents’ objections.

As the bill sponsor, Harding confirmed the bill allows parents the right to sue if they believe a school’s procedures are infringing on their “fundamental right to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.”

“What this bill allows for is the parents to be able to pursue the school to, No. 1, get information from the school of what is being talked to and told to the child and also damages relating to how that has affected that child,” he said.

The bill prohibits schools from encouraging classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate. That clause drew particular concern Thursday.

Critics noted some students may 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 a way other parents would find objectionable, critics of the bill said. Harding said he understood conversations would happen, but he wanted to make sure there was no policy encouraging it.

Todd Delmay, who is running for a House seat, said the way the bill is written could prevent his 11-year-old son from discussing his family at school. Delmay and his husband, Jeff, were the first gay men ever married in Florida.

“This would have erased his opportunity to talk about his family as it would have erased every other child’s opportunity,” he said. “Help all children to be able to talk about their families.”

Even those supporting the bill urged Harding to define “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” when it comes to those sensitive topics, so that it doesn’t prevent teachers from answering questions that might come from inquisitive students.

“Those words might not encourage discussions,” said Republican Rep. Amber Mariano, citing the bill’s lines on gender identity and sexual orientation. “I did hear your intent is to allow for questions from students and this is supposed to be about procedures.”

Advocates, particularly from Equality Florida and other LGBTQ advocacy groups, referenced the high level of suicide among LGBTQ children.

“Every single one of you have a sexual orientation. Every single one of you have a gender identity,” said Lakey Love of the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation. “To prohibit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity is to exclude what it is to be human.”

But another speaker supporting the bill recounted how her 13-year-old daughter signed a “gender-nonconforming support plan” with school personnel.

“When parents are excluded from decisions affecting their child’s health and well-being it sends a message to children that their parents’ input and authority is no longer important,” said January Littlejohn, who has been on Fox News discussing her experience in Leon County Schools.

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani objected to opening up another cause of legal action against schools and also the way the bill included sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We cannot legislate with language that specifically calls (that) out and not think that gives an impression that we don’t value folks who have a different gender identity or sexual orientation compared to you,” she said.

Sen. Dennis Baxley introduced an identical bill (SB 1834) on Tuesday.

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