Fight over Florida sex education law could take months to play out

A legal battle over a new state law that restricts teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms could continue well into the upcoming school year.

The law, which passed during this year’s legislative session and has drawn heavy national attention, will take effect July 1. Public-school classes start in mid-August in much of the state.

Court documents filed Sunday and Monday in procedural disputes between attorneys for the state and the law’s challengers indicate it could be months before key initial issues — a state motion to dismiss the case and a plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the law — are resolved. Depending on the outcomes of those motions, the case could then head toward a full-blown trial.

As an example, attorneys for the challengers filed a proposed schedule Sunday that would result in briefs being filed as late as Sept. 30 on a motion for a preliminary injunction.

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Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office objected to the proposed schedule in a document filed Monday, saying it would result in "slow-tracking the briefing of defendants’ motion to dismiss."

The law (HB 1557) bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade and requires that such instruction in older grades be "age-appropriate … in accordance with state academic standards."

Republican lawmakers titled the measure the "Parental Rights in Education" bill. But opponents dubbed it the "don’t say gay" bill, and it has spurred a massive controversy that included lawmakers last month voting to dissolve a special taxing district that benefits Walt Disney Co. That move came after Disney officials criticized the education law.

Groups such as the LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida, parents, students and a teacher filed a federal lawsuit March 31 challenging the measure. The 80-page complaint alleged that the law violates constitutional free-speech and equal-protection rights. Also, it contended that the law violates due-process rights because of "vagueness."

"H.B. 1557 piles one violation on top of another. It offends principles of free speech and equal protection by seeking to censor discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity that recognize and respect LGBTQ people and their families. It offends due process by using broad and vague terms to define its prohibitions — thus inviting discriminatory enforcement and magnifying its chilling effect on speech. And it arises from discriminatory purposes and outdated sex-based stereotypes that offend deeply rooted constitutional and statutory requirements," the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs plan to file an amended complaint, with U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor setting a May 25 deadline for that filing. The state would have until June 27 to respond to the amended complaint, though its attorneys said in the filing Monday that they expected to file a motion by June 15 to dismiss the case.