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Florida LGBT+ advocates sue Ron DeSantis over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Lawsuit alleges legislation is an unconstitutional and ‘grave abuse of power’

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 31 March 2022 16:59 BST
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs controversial 'Don't Say Gay' bill into law
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LGBT+ advocacy organisations in Florida are suing Governor Ron DeSantis and the state’s education officials to block enforcement of a so-called “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” measure signed into law this week.

Equality Florida, Family Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a group of Florida LGBT+ students and families allege that the measure is an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools,” according to the 80-page complaint filed in US District Court on 31 March.

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill – named “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” by its opponents – broadly prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.

Parents can also sue their school districts if they believe such measures were violated, potentially exposing teachers and schools to costly, grievance-driven lawsuits.

“This effort to control young minds through state censorship – and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality – is a grave abuse of power,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as federal provisions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under Tile IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The lawsuit highlights the law’s broad and vague language and absence of definitions for key phrases “subject to intractable uncertainty and disagreement” while allowing any parent the ability to “file suit if they believe that a school has violated these expansive, nebulous prohibitions.”

The legislation effectively appoints “every parent as a roving censor, armed with a legal warrant to sue schools for damages” if they believe a teacher, student or third-party instructor has provided materials or discussion related to sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the lawsuit.

“The potential for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement here is self-evident,” it reads.

The lawsuit presents hypothetical questions that could be introduced in Florida schools, including uncertainty whether a student can discuss their LGBT+ family members, or if a transgender student can discuss their identity during civil rights lessons, or whether teachers can discuss a US Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, among other questions, that appear to violate the law as written.

The effect of the law “is thus to chill the rights of teachers, students, and officials, who, like any rational person, will avoid the danger zone created by a state-mandated censorship code,” according to the lawsuit.

Roberta Kaplan, founding partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the Florida has “not only taken a giant step backwards, but it has done so at the expense of our children, the most vulnerable members of society.”

“It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to our constitutional system than treating one group of school kids as second class based solely on who they are or who their parents are. This law cannot be allowed to stand,” she added.

Several other states are considering similar “Don’t Say Gay” bills, part of a nationwide campaign supported by powerful conservative Christian lobbyists and Republican state legislators asserting “parental rights” against LGBT+ Americans and their education and healthcare.

President Joe Biden’s administration has condemned the measures, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the agency will “monitor” the state’s implementation of the law to “evaluate whether it violates federal civil rights law.”

“Make no mistake: this is a part of a disturbing and dangerous trend across the country of legislation targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals,” he said in a statement this week.

More than 300 measures targeting LGBT+ Americans are under consideration in state legislatures across the US, with roughly one-third of those bills directly targeting transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Roughly half of those bills prohibit transgender youth from participating in school sports.

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