A bill that would prohibit the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida's primary schools was passed by the state senate's education committee on Tuesday.
The bill, titled "Parental Rights in Education," passed through the committee by a 6-3 vote.
As written, the proposal states that school districts "may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” A parent could sue a district for violations.
But activists have dubbed the proposal the "Don't Say Gay" bill and contend it would endanger the mental health of the state's LGBTQ children.
If passed, the measure would "effectively silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ family members, friends, neighbors and icons," Kara Gross of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said last month.
After the proposal was passed by the committee, a White House spokesperson weighed in on the legislation.
“Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom. Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most – LGBTQI+ students, who are already vulnerable to bullying and violence just for being themselves," the White House statement read.
The bill has also attracted condemnation on social media and from Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who said it "will kill kids."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Harding, was peppered with questions by Democrats at a committee hearing last month about whether kids would be able to talk freely about LGBTQ people or history.
Harding repeatedly said his bill is meant to give parents more control over what their children learn. He maintained that it would not silence spontaneous discussions but instead stop a district from integrating such topics into the curriculum. He added that schools could still have lessons on Pride Month and events such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in which a gunman killed 49 people in Orlando.
“This doesn't preclude discussion and conversation that’s going to happen. We’re talking about a school district initiating something through a standard procedure or policy that they’re doing,” he said.
Critics said Harding's statements contradicted the broad text of his bill, particularly in terms of having lessons on LGBTQ history, which they argued would be barred from the curriculum. They also said the proposal does not specify what grades would be affected. Harding said it would apply to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
During a news conference in Miami Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared to signal his support for the measure, but at another event Tuesday said he was speaking more about parents' rights.
"I didn't say anything about any bill, they just asked me generally about a parents thing," DeSantis told reporters Tuesday. "I haven't seen any bill so my comments were kind of generally about where we are."
DeSantis said it came down to whether certain subjects were age appropriate and allowing parents to know what's being taught to elementary school children.
"I think most parents, they want to know what's going on in the schools, they want to make sure that everything is age appropriate," DeSantis said. "And look, at the end of the day, my goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don't want the schools to kind of be a playground for idealogical disputes or to try to inject."
Last year, a handful of states passed new laws requiring parents to be notified about any discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools and allowing them to opt out. Those states included Tennessee, Arkansas and Montana. A similar measure was vetoed in Arizona.
"Let's get parents involved, let's make sure anything that's discussed is age appropriate but let's keep the focus on where it needs to be," DeSantis said. "We need our elementary school kids reading, we need to do better in third-grade reading, we need to make sure that our high school kids are prepared to either go in the workforce or go to college and those are the things that I think are really really important. And if folks are focusing on that then I think we'll be alright, to the extent it gets off the rails on that and then they start to come into some of these things that are more political in nature, that's not really the core mission of what schools need to be doing."
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