By Ryan Dailey

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate is poised to consider a controversial measure that would prohibit school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grade levels, as one Republican called on lawmakers to “soften” the bill when it is heard on the Senate floor.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill (HB 1557) in a 12-8 vote along almost straight party lines. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voted with Democrats against the measure.

The House passed the bill last week in a 69-47 vote, with six Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

The bill says classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity “may not occur” in kindergarten through third-grade.

For higher grade levels, the proposal calls for such instruction to be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate as determined by state academic standards.

The measure has drawn heavy opposition from groups that have repeatedly argued it singles out LGBTQ people. Dozens of people spoke in opposition to the bill Monday during an at-times tense committee meeting.

“I am deeply concerned about the mental health and the physical health of the adolescents and kids that could be affected by this. I do agree that conversations should be age appropriate, but I do not agree that we should be adopting into law any discriminatory language that would single out specific people,” said Joseph Knoll, CEO of SPEKTRUM Health, an Orlando clinic that serves LGBTQ people.

The measure also aims to prevent school districts from adopting policies that could “prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” or changes to a student’s services.

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.

Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida, expressed concern that the measure could open the door to “a new basis for sweeping litigation against school districts that will have a chilling effect on support for LGBTQ youth.”

Opponents of the bill also have argued that the changes would remove schools and teachers as a lifeline for vulnerable LGBTQ students.

But Senate bill sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, argued that children are not “wards of the state” and that parents should have control over decisions that impact their kids.

“We are moving, and have been moving, in a direction of empowerment of parents. That they’re supposed to be in charge,” Baxley said. “And so, in following in that pathway, what we are finding is there are many more what I call social engineering approaches that are being done that I think go far beyond where families want to go. And that we need to pursue this (bill) in a pathway where we honor those parental rights.”

Several opponents of the bill took issue with Baxley’s use of the term “social engineering.”

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, disputed that educators are teaching sex- or gender-related curriculums to young students that are inappropriate for the grade levels. Book recalled working as a kindergarten teacher.

“I still remember their names and all of their favorites. What I don't ever remember was telling my young students, ‘Don’t worry, you don't have to pick a gender.’ I don't remember teaching, quote, LGTBQ propaganda from secret lesson plans, and I don't remember breaking any Florida law by telling a parent that they couldn't review my lesson plans,” Book said. “It didn’t happen then, and it doesn’t happen now.”

The committee approved the bill after rejecting a change proposed by Brandes. The change sought to prohibit school instruction on “human sexuality or sexual activity” in kindergarten through third-grade, rather than lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We want to ensure that everything is captured, not just gender and sexual orientation. No sexual-natured conversation should be happening. It is not OK for 7-year-olds to be having conversations about intercourse with their teacher if it does not fall within the current standards,” Brandes said. “If the intent of this bill isn't to marginalize anyone, let's make sure we aren’t by passing this amendment.”

After the Republican-controlled panel rejected the change, Brandes again petitioned his colleagues to consider revising the measure when it reaches the Senate floor.

“Can we find a way to modify the language in such a way that our neighbors in this room don’t feel harmed? I have to believe the answer to that question is yes. The language could be broadened,” Brandes said.

News Service of Florida