Florida House backs schools bill on sexual orientation, gender identity

The Florida House on Thursday passed an education measure that would prohibit instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, as Republicans disputed a "don't say gay" moniker that critics gave the bill.

House members voted 69-47 to approve the bill (HB 1557), with six Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. Those Republicans were Chip LaMarca of Lighthouse Point, Vance Aloupis of Miami, Demi Busatta Cabrera of Coral Gables, Rene Plasencia of Orlando, Amber Mariano of Hudson, and Will Robinson of Bradenton.

The bill would require that instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity "may not occur" in kindergarten through third grade.

In higher grade levels, the bill would prohibit teaching such concepts in a manner that is "not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students" as determined by state academic standards.

The issue has drawn national attention as critics have labeled it the "don’t say gay" bill.

RELATED: Florida House set to vote on controversial 'Don’t Say Gay' bill as early as Thursday

"We call it the ‘don’t say gay’ bill because it prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. But members, this bill goes way beyond the text on the page. It sends a terrible message to our youth that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction," Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is gay, told House members.

But several Republicans said the measure has been mischaracterized by opponents.

"The bill, plain as day, states that we cannot have instruction … meaning curriculum led by teachers, teaching children ages 5 through 9 about sexual orientation and gender identity. Think about that. Children that are learning how to color inside the lines, that are learning sight words," Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, said.

Other parts of the bill are geared toward preventing school districts from withholding from parents information related to students’ health.

"A school district may not adopt procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being, or a change in related services," the bill said.

Districts also would be prohibited from adopting policies that "encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information."

Parents would be able to sue school districts for violations of the bill. The proposal also includes an alternative process to resolve such disputes, which would involve administrative hearings before special magistrates.

Bill sponsor Joe Harding, R-Williston, said the measure aims to ensure that parents are notified of important decisions that would affect their children.

"The idea that engaging the parents in critical decisions is controversial? I reject that idea. That a parent being blocked out is OK? I reject that idea," Harding said.

But Democrats rejected Republicans’ assertion that the measure is focused on protecting parents’ rights.

Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, criticized it as singling out LGBTQ Floridians.

"This bill, in its language, empowers school districts throughout this state to eliminate any discussion or recognition of the LGBTQ community until high school graduation," Grieco said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the House bill on Monday.

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