A Utah Senate committee has voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would remove a controversial provision in its sex education law, reports The Salt Lake Tribune.
The existing provision, which bans the “advocacy of homosexuality” in schools, came under fire from LGBTQ advocates, who argued that the law discriminates against LGBTQ students by singling them out to express moral disapproval of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In response, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Equality Utah sued over the law, arguing that, not only is it discriminatory, but it restricts the First Amendment rights of students and teachers.
Similar laws, known as “no promo homo” laws, are on the books in at least seven other states: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. According to GLSEN, such laws expressly forbid teachers or administrators from discussing LGBTQ issues in a positive light, if at all. Still others require teachers to portray the LGBTQ community in a negative or inaccurate way, particularly within the context of sex education or HIV/AIDS awareness.
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah professor and board member of Equality Utah, said the old provision of what constituted “advocacy” had led to situations where educators were unwilling to intervene on behalf of LGBTQ students who were being bullied.
Now, under the proposed SB 196, the ban on “advocacy of homosexuality” will be changed to a ban on “advocacy of premarital or extramarital sexual activity,” which is already generally outlawed in Utah schools.
Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) called the change a “win-win,” as the state can no longer be accused of discriminating against students based on sexual orientation, but can still maintain its support of abstinence-based sex education.
Even conservative groups like the Utah Eagle Forum, Family Policy Resource and Sutherland Institute expressed support from the bill. Bill Duncan, of the Sutherland Institute, said the change would limit the state’s legal liability if the existing lawsuit moves forward. As a result, judges might be less inclined to issue sweeping rulings that would interfere with or attempt to “micromanage” what is being taught in sex ed classes.
“The only change is that we’re not, in our law, singling out a single identifiable group,” Duncan said.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration. In the meantime, Equality Utah and the state have filed a joint motion asking a federal court to halt the lawsuit while lawmakers vote on the wording change.
But Rosky told the Associated Press that even if the change passes, Equality Utah may still continue its lawsuit. For instance, the group is concerned about other parts of the sex education law that ban instruction that could “facilitate or encourage the violation of any state of federal criminal law.” Even though same-sex marriage is legal, defunct laws like Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage or its anti-sodomy statute still remain on the books, and could be used by teachers or administrators to justify discriminating against LGBTQ students or denying them access to relevant information.