Florida Senate passes ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, US Dept. of Education responds

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Senate passed House Bill 1557 on Tuesday morning, the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ legislation labeled the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by critics.

The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.

More hours after it passed, US Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a statement seemingly threatening Florida leaders over the bill.

“Parents across the country are looking to national, state, and district leaders to support our nation’s students, help them recover from the pandemic, and provide them the academic and mental health supports they need. Instead, leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need. The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country, and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported.”

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, March 8, 2022

Senators voted 22-17 in favor of the bill, with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against it: Fla. Sens. Jeffrey Brandes of St. Petersburg and Jennifer Bradley of Orange Park. Seven Republicans and one Democrat broke with their parties when the Florida House passed the bill last month.

Brandes had signaled his displeasure with the bill several times through multiple amendments both in committee and on the floor, so his contrarian vote was not a surprise.

Bradley sent 8 On Your Side a statement about her opposition to the bill.

“As a fiercely protective mom of three, I support parental rights in schools and proudly supported the Parental Bill of Rights last session,” Bradley said. “Children in grades K-3 should not have any sexual education curriculum at all and I’m glad that is already the case in Florida schools. This bill doesn’t create any new rights for Florida parents but instead invents a new cause of action for lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits against our taxpayer funded schools.”

Democratic leaders spoke out against the bill minutes after it passed the Senate.

“This bill is an international embarrassment to our state,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat. “Because the Governor and the legislature won’t say it, I will: this kind of hate and discrimination has no place in Florida. To Florida’s LGBTQ community: you are not alone, you are beautiful the way you are, and you are so loved. Please know that we will never stop fighting for a better world for you.”

“As a mother with a gay daughter, I know first-hand the struggles our kids go through when they’re debating whether or not to tell their families about their sexual orientation,” said Fla. Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “The ‘don’t say gay’ bill does nothing more than put an even larger target on their backs. The Florida legislature should spend more time debating real world issues that are affecting families across the Sunshine State and less time creating solutions in search of a problem.”

Debate was heated and emotional on the senate floor Tuesday before the final vote, with only a few Republicans rising to speak in favor of the bill.

“Gay is not a permanent thing,” Fla. Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, said during floor debate. “LGBT is not a permanent thing. And it’s not a bad thing.”

8 On Your Side reached out to Garcia for clarification on those comments. Garcia said she only meant that often those situations are ‘fluid.’

“I believe that individuals are allowed to change their minds about their lifestyles, sexuality, and identities as they continue to mature and make decisions based on their experiences,” Garcia said. “However, the right to guide critical conversations with their children, especially young children in K-3, about their sexual orientation or gender identity belongs to parents.”

“I shared an experience from my own life as a single parent raising a young son who had questions about a family member going through a transition,” said Garcia. “That experience informed my views on this important topic, which is why I shared it with my fellow Senators. I believe everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, and accepted for who they are. With that said, the bill’s focus is on allowing parents to decide how to have those conversations and allowing children to be children until they themselves can make their own decisions.”

After nearly four hours of questions and debate on Monday night, Florida senators rejected all floor amendments to the bill.

Near the end of a night filled with tears and anger — on the floor, in the Senate hallways and at school walkouts across the state — the Senate bill sponsor, Fla. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the bill addresses the recent “trending posture” of kids coming out at school.

“There’s something wrong with how we’re emphasizing this, and all of a sudden overnight, they’re a celebrity when they felt like they were nobody,” Baxley said.

There were 13 total amendments filed ahead of Monday’s floor session; all were voted down.

One filed by Republican Fla. Sen. Jeffrey Brandes of St. Petersburg would have broadened the bill language from a ban on classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” to “human sexuality, including, but not limited to, curricula addressing sexual activity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

“This is a blanket amendment,” Brandes said. “It says ‘talk to your parents’ about all of these conversations between kindergarten and third grade. Do I want my 8-year-old being instructed on sexual activity? Nope, I don’t want that, and neither do you.”

“Ultimately what it does is it gets Senator Baxley the intent that he wants without this bill’s impact,” Brandes said. “Because it applies equally to all of us, which is what I think we want.”

An amendment filed by Democratic Fla. Sen. Shevrin Jones of Miami Gardens, who is the first openly gay state senator, would have removed the age limit and banned any instruction “intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“I’ve been watching these children who are here,” Jones said as he began a story about his father that led him to tears.

“I never knew that living my truth would cause church members to leave my dad’s church,” Jones said. “Or friends to stop talking to me. Or families to make jokes about who you are.”

Other amendments would have defined the terms gender identity and sexual orientation, required schools to protect those categories in order to create a safe environment for students, and changed a separate statute on health education to teach the benefits of “monogamous” marriage rather than “heterosexual .”

HB 1557, officially entitled Parental Rights in Education, specifies a number of procedures school districts and school personnel must follow in relation to parents, including notifying parents of changes to their child’s emotional or physical health or well-being, encouraging encouraging prohibiting schools from adopting procedures students to keep information from parents, allowing parents access to their child’s records, letting parents refuse consent for any health care services offered by the school, forcing schools to get parental permission for any health screening or wellness questionnaire, and specifying time limits by which schools must respond to parents and resolve their issues before parents can escalate or sue.

Late Monday afternoon at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed in on the bill after taking issue with his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ nickname.

“We’re gonna make sure parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” DeSantis said.

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