Metro Weekly

Senate defeats LGBT student nondiscrimination amendment

Seven Republicans cross aisle, but amendment to education bill falls short of 60-vote threshold

The Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building (Credit: Scrumshus, via Wikimedia Commons).
The Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building (Credit: Scrumshus, via Wikimedia Commons).

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday evening defeated an amendment to an education bill that would have provided nondiscrimination and anti-bullying protections for LGBT children in schools. 

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), was based on the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), a bill that Franken has introduced four different times in the course of his short Senate career. Three previous versions of the bill failed to make it out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, even though Democrats controlled the Senate at the time, and the current version faces a much tougher hurdle now that Republicans control the Senate and make up the majority of committee members.

Because of the stalemate in committee, Franken attempted to attach his bill as an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act, an education bill that amends or revises parts of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. 

The amendment would have prohibited schools or school boards from discriminating against students based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also have required school administrators to step in when they are aware that discrimination, harassment or bullying of LGBT students is taking place. If school districts were noncompliant, they could have been sued by parents and students for failing to act.

Franken’s amendment received a majority of votes in the chamber, but failed to obtain the required 60 votes needed to be attached to the bill. Seven Republicans and 45 Democrats backed the amendment, while 45 Republicans opposed it. The seven Republicans who voted in favor of Franken’s amendment were: Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Ron Johnson (Wisc.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio).

LGBT allies and advocates decried the defeat of the amendment, which was led on the floor by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. According to The Washington Post, Alexander urged his colleagues to reject the amendment, claiming it was an overreach of the federal government into an area that should best be handled by local school boards and would lead to costly lawsuits. 

LGBT allies and advocates lamented the amendment’s failure.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Student Nondiscrimination Act did not pass today,” said Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which advocates on behalf of pro-LGBT policies in schools. “The federal government has an established role in protecting students from discrimination based on sex, race and religion. We call on Congress to codify nondiscrimination protections into law for sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. The evidence is clear and compelling that LGBT students need these protections.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued its own statement a statement chastising the Senate while also vowing to use other avenues to protect LGBT students. 

“It is disappointing that the Senate failed to act to explicitly protect LGBT children in our nation’s public schools from discrimination. What could be more commonsense?” said Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the ACLU. “It is, however, encouraging that a bipartisan majority of senators came together in support of the idea that all children, regardless of who they are, deserve the right to learn in an environment that is safe and free from the fear of discrimination looming over their heads.

“The fight for explicit protection for LGBT students under federal law will continue,” Thompson added. “In the meantime, the Departments of Education and Justice must continue to use their existing legal authority to protect LGBT students from discrimination and harassment.”

Franken previously told BuzzFeed prior to the vote that he believed his legislation would settle questions about restroom use by transgender students by allowing them to use the restroom that corresponds to their correct gender identity. Several schools or school boards across the nation have grappled with the issue, including, on a local level, Virginia’s Gloucester County, where the ACLU and ACLU of Virginia have brought a lawsuit on behalf of a transgender male student who was permitted, and then prohibited, from using the men’s restroom. The lawsuit claims that the school board in Gloucester County violated Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, when they discriminated against transgender students. That interpretation — that discrimination based on gender identity constitutes sex discrimination — has largely been adopted by both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, and is another way that advocates see to protect some LGBT students in lieu of federal legislation.

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