Florida teachers can ‘say gay’ in classroom after lawsuit settlement

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Students and teachers can discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms, provided it’s not part of instruction, under a settlement reached Monday between Florida education officials and civil rights attorneys who had challenged a state law critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

The settlement clarifies what is allowed in Florida classrooms following passage two years ago of the law prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Opponents said the law had created confusion about whether teachers could identity themselves as 2SLGBTQ+ or if they even could have rainbow stickers in classrooms.

Other states used the Florida law as a template to pass prohibitions on classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation. Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina are among the states with versions of the law.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Florida Board of Education will send instructions to every school district saying the Florida law doesn’t prohibit discussing 2SLGBTQ+ people, nor prevent anti-bullying rules on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or disallow gay-straight alliance groups.

The settlement also spells out that the law is neutral — meaning what applies to 2SLGBTQ+ people also applies to heterosexual people — and that it doesn’t apply to library books not being used for instruction in the classroom.

‘This shouldn’t be a controversial thing’

The law also doesn’t apply to books with incidental references to 2SLGBTQ+ characters or same-sex couples, “as they are not instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity any more than a math problem asking students to add bushels of apples is instruction on apple farming,” according to the settlement.

“What this settlement does is it re-establishes the fundamental principle, that I hope all Americans agree with, which is every kid in this country is entitled to an education at a public school where they feel safe, their dignity is respected and where their families and parents are welcomed,” said Roberta Kaplan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in an interview. “This shouldn’t be a controversial thing.”

In a statement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office described the deal as a “major win” with the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education Act remaining intact.

“We fought hard to ensure this law couldn’t be maligned in court, as it was in the public arena by the media and large corporate actors,” said Ryan Newman, an attorney for the state of Florida. “We are victorious, and Florida’s classrooms will remain a safe place under the Parental Rights in Education Act.”

The law has been championed by the Republican governor since before its passage in 2022 by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. It barred instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, and it was expanded to all grades last year.

Republican lawmakers had argued that parents should broach these subjects with children and that the law protected children from being taught about inappropriate material.

Chilling effect

Opponents of the law said it created a chilling effect in classrooms.

Some teachers said they were unsure if they could mention or display a photo of their same-sex partner in the classroom. In some cases, books dealing with 2SLGBTQ+ topics were removed from classrooms and lines mentioning sexual orientation were excised from school musicals. The Miami-Dade County School Board in 2022 decided not to adopt a resolution recognizing LGBTQ History Month, even though it had done so a year earlier.

The law also triggered the ongoing legal battles between DeSantis and Disney over control of the governing district for Walt Disney World in central Florida after DeSantis took control of the government in what the company described as retaliation for its opposition to the legislation. DeSantis touted the fight with Disney during his run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, which he ended earlier this year.

A person wears a costume closely resembling Mickey Mouse, with an oversized red hat that says Make American Great Again, holds a sign that says "DeSantis Keep Florida Free" A woman in a T-shirt takes a selfie with the mouse on her smartphone.
Supporters of Florida’s Republican-backed ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law gather for a rally outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in April 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

The civil rights attorneys sued Florida education officials on behalf of teachers, students and parents, claiming the law was unconstitutional, but the case was dismissed last year by a federal judge in Tallahassee who said they lacked standing to sue. The case was appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kaplan said they believed the appellate court would have reversed the lower court’s decision, but continuing the lawsuit would have delayed any resolution for several more years.

“The last thing we wanted for the kids in Florida was more delay,” Kaplan said.



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