Pennsylvania state lawmakers are proposing a bill to limit school instruction about LGBTQ content that is considered more expansive than a similar bill that passed in Florida earlier this year, which opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
GOP lawmakers held a rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Tuesday in support of the bill, which is sponsored by State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton Co.).
Similar to Florida’s law, supporters say the measure is needed to guarantee parental oversight of curriculum content and reading materials that are available in school libraries that some may deem as age-inappropriate or “obscene.” Other supporters have raised concerns that politically liberal teachers have attempted to “indoctrinate” children into supporting LGBTQ rights or the idea that gender is fluid and can change over time.
“It is patterned after the Florida bill, but mine goes further,” Borowicz told news website PennLive.
If the bill were to pass, public and charter schools in the commonwealth would be barred from offering “instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The bill is unclear about what constitutes “instruction” and whether a passing acknowledgment of LGBTQ issues, or a response to a student’s question about LGBTQ issues, might be considered a violation of the law. It also does not directly state how the law will be enforced.
The bill, which allows parents to sue if they believe their child has been exposed to such information, also requires schools to implement procedures to notify parents of any health care services offered to their children at school, create a form allowing parents to decline health care services, and inform parents or guardians of any changes in “health care services or monitoring related to a student’s mental, emotional or physical health.”
Questionnaires inquiring about student well-being or health care screening forms may only be administered to children in grades K-5 if a school has, prior to distributing the survey, provided written notice to the parent or guardian of the questionnaire or screening form or survey; published a copy of the survey on the school’s publicly accessible website, or provided a hard copy to a parent who requests such a copy; and provided parents the choice to “opt out” of the survey on behalf of their children.
Lastly, the bill prohibits any school employee or representative from encouraging students to withhold information about a student’s mental or physical health from a parent or guardian; prohibiting a parent or guardian to access their child’s health or education records; or retaliate against students who report them to administrators or other district officials for violating any provisions of the proposed law.
Although the bill is vague on why these provisions have been introduced, Borowicz said she was targeting “gender ideology,” or the idea that children may be allowed to socially transition — through use of pronouns, names, and gender marker changes — without parental notification.
A similar bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate in June but has not yet received a vote in the House of Representatives. Under the provisions of that bill, instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity is barred from prekindergarten through fifth grade for being “not age-appropriate,” and requires that any instruction in sixth through twelfth grade be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate in accordance with State standards.”
The Senate bill requires school personnel to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to avoid infringing on other students’ religious beliefs or free speech expressing opposition to homosexuality, transgender identity, or LGBTQ rights, including, but not limited to, the use of gender-affirming pronouns. It does allow school personnel to provide support services to LGBTQ students, but only if they have received prior consent from the parents. The bill contains similar restrictions on health services, school records, and student surveys as Borowicz’s bill, allowing parents the choice of opting out.
Other rally attendees carried signs with the titles of books they want to see eliminated from libraries and classrooms for graphic depictions of sex, especially same-sex intimacy. Several participants had previously filed complaints about the presence of books they deemed age-inappropriate, with one mother filing a federal lawsuit suing state officials over the presence of five LGBTQ-themed books in her son’s high school library, which she has claimed are pornographic, reports PennLive.
Borowicz told reporters at the rally that her personal preference would be to extend the prohibition on LGBTQ instruction all the way through high school, stating: “It really needs to be protected up through 12th grade, we need to go all the way.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has vowed to veto any legislation that appears to target or single out LGBTQ youth for discrimination, reports Harrisburg ABC affiliate WHTM. He says lawmakers should be focusing on real issues facing Pennsylvanians, calling Borowicz’s proposed bill “an effort to scorch individuality and normalize unacceptance,” adding: “This legislation denies humanity by reinforcing homophobic ideologies.”
Wolf also opposes efforts to ban LGBTQ-related materials or works that may be included in school and public libraries.
“Removing books from school libraries that focus on real, everyday life or true moments in history does more harm than good,” he said.
But Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor, who is locked in a tight race with Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, appeared at last Tuesday’s rally, throwing his support behind Borowciz’s bill and touting the importance of parental oversight in education.
LGBTQ advocates are concerned that if Mastriano wins the general election this fall, the Pennsylvania General Assembly — which most expect to continue to be controlled by Republicans come January — will rubber-stamp the bill and send it to Mastriano to sign into law.
Sharon Ward, a senior policy advisor for the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, told PennLive that the enhanced “Don’t Say Gay” bill could simply worsen the targeting and bullying of LGBTQ youth, whom teachers will now be reticent to defend against physical or verbal harassment out of concern that they will be sued, suspended, or fired if they speak up.
“The intent of these bills seems to be to wipe out any discussion and pretend that [LGBTQ people] don’t exist,” Ward said.
Casey Pick, a senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, the nation’s top crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, expressed similar concerns, noting that although the text of the bill would ban any instruction on any sexual identity — even heterosexuality — it would largely be enforced in a way that singles out expressions of LGBTQ identity.
“Laws like this put [schools] in a terrible position where they have to act very cautiously and create broad buffer zones where they may restrict more speech than they’re required to just to avoid being sued,” Pick said. “What you ultimately wind up with is a climate where schools and teachers feel unable to address the needs of students.”
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