LGBTQ groups, parents file federal lawsuit opposing Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' law
TALLAHASSEE – Just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed parental rights legislation, which opponents condemn as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a federal lawsuit challenging the measure as unconstitutional was filed Thursday by leading LGBTQ organizations, parents, students and a teacher.
The bill (HB 1557) has drawn criticism from the White House, along with walkouts in schools across the state from students concerned about its potential impact. It also has triggered a clash between DeSantis, Republican lawmakers and Walt Disney Co., the state’s biggest employer and major GOP donor, which opposes the bill.
But DeSantis, in signing the measure Monday at a Pasco County private charter school exempt from its requirements, portrayed the bill’s requirements as simply further empowering parents. He also dismissed many opponents, saying they supported “sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”
“They support injecting woke gender ideology into second-grade classrooms,” DeSantis said. “They support enabling schools to ‘transition’ students to a ‘different gender’ without the knowledge of the parent.”
But Roberta Kaplan, founding partner of the New York-based law firm that filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, condemned the legislation as a “giant step backwards.”
“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,” Kaplan said. “This law cannot be allowed to stand.”
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The bill bans classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
It also prohibits such teaching in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students, which potentially broadens the ban on these discussions to all grade levels.
Parents can sue school districts over alleged violations.
What suit says
The lawsuit alleges the prohibition violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, violating free speech and equal protection safeguards. It concludes that classroom discussion is censored on matters involving sexual orientation and gender identity not just in early grades, but for all students based on an undefined “age-appropriate” standard.
The law deliberately employs broad and vague terms to allow for enforcement by parents who are designated as roving censors empowered to sue school boards, according to the legal challenge.
The organizations suing Florida over the law set to go into effect July 1 are the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality Florida and Family Equality. More than a dozen parents, students and a teacher are also plaintiffs.
“Already our children have told us that they are afraid that they will not be able to talk about their family at school,” said Dan and Brent VanTice, parents of two St. Johns County first-grade students, and among those suing.
“We are heartbroken that our children are already feeling isolated and stigmatized by this law,” they added.
Taryn Fenske, a DeSantis spokeswoman, ridiculed the lawsuit.
"This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools.," she said.
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More legal challenges to come
Spurred on by DeSantis, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved a host of controversial measures during the recently ended session. Most were approved along party lines and left Democrats and other critics complaining that they were part of a culture war and aimed at appeasing a conservative voting base this election year.
In coming weeks, the measures are expected to attract a cascade of lawsuits.
Challenged bills are almost certain to include new limits on abortion, voting and discussion of race in classrooms and the workplace, and potential penalties for companies that assist the Biden administration move migrants into Florida.
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The filing of the lawsuit came the same day U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona met with LGBTQ students and their family members at a school in Orlando, according to The Associated Press. He privately discussed how the legislation was affecting their lives. His visit was one of several Biden administration events Thursday showing support for the queer community, including a presidential proclamation recognizing Transgender Day of Visibility.
Asked about the lawsuit filed by LGBTQ organizations and others during a visit to West Palm Beach, DeSantis said it had no merit.
"You're challenging it legally. Are you arguing that there's constitutional right to have classroom instruction for first graders cover things like transgender and gender ideology?" he asked. "I can't imagine a court would accept that."
DeSantis said he does not feel the bill threatens free speech rights protected under the first amendment because states and local school boards have the ability to set curriculum.
He said the state can mandate that history of the Holocaust be taught in schools, and suggested that the legislature can also guide localities on what should not be taught in public schools.
DeSantis added that while he doesn't believe the challenge should hold water, he said the courts could still play an outsized role in the bill's future.
"There are certain judges that if there's a cause du jour out there, that they can potentially stretch the law to try to do that," he said. "The bottom line is that we're going to defend (the bill)."
Katherine Kokal of the Palm Beach Post contributed to this report. John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport