Florida must clarify parental rights law under settlement in 'Don't Say Gay' lawsuit

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Florida Department of Education must clarify a controversial 2022 parental rights law branded as “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics under a settlement reached Monday that upholds a key DeSantis administration policy.

The DeSantis administration and a group of LGBTQ+ advocates both claimed victory in the settlement, which resolves a two-year-old federal lawsuit that alleged the measure “is an unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools.”

Under the agreement, the state must clarify the law’s scope to schools across the state, ensuring that, among other things, it does not prohibit references to LGBTQ+ persons, couples, families, or issues in literature or classroom discussions.

Officials with Gov. Ron DeSantis heralded the agreement as “major win” against “activists and extremists” who fought the “Parental Rights in Education” law, which will remain in effect now that both parties agree to dismiss the lawsuit.

The law, which has since been expanded, prohibits teachers from leading classroom lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade, and banning such lessons for older students unless they are “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The DeSantis administration highlighted the policies Monday as “efforts to keep radical gender and sexual ideology out of the classrooms of public-school children.”

“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,” Ryan Newman, general counsel for the DeSantis administration, said in a statement. “We are victorious, and Florida’s classrooms will remain a safe place under the Parental Rights in Education Act.”

In the 2022 lawsuit, the group, which included the New York-based firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP and the National Center for Lesbian Rights on behalf of groups Equality Florida and Family Equality, argued that Florida’s parental rights law violates the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and federal Title IX rules, signaling an “extraordinary government intrusion on the free speech and equal protection rights” in public schools. They attacked as “vagueness” in the legislation, alleging that “nobody knows exactly what the statutory language covers.”

The lawsuit was initially dismissed but, amid an appeal that has lasted about one year, the group filed an agreement Monday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. This deal, according to the group, ensures the law will “applied neutrally and is no license to discriminate against or erase LGBTQ+ families.”

As such, the state Department of Education, in the agency’s clarification, must tell school districts that the law prohibits “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity including heterosexuality, and that it would be a violation to instruct that heterosexuality is superior to other sexualities. Further, the agreement states that the law does not prohibit “instruction or intervention against bullying” based on sexual orientation or gender identity, or the removal of safe space stickers, which some districts have done.

The settlement stipulates that the Department of Education must send the full details of the agreement to school districts to show what Florida has said in court about the scope and meaning of the parental rights law.

The group that sued the state claimed the settlement “effectively nullifies the most dangerous and discriminatory” pieces of the law.

"For nearly two years, Florida’s notorious ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law has spawned a disturbing wave of fear, anxiety, and confusion,” said Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel for the group that challenged the law, said in a statement. “By providing much-needed clarity, this settlement represents a major victory for the many thousands of LGBTQ+ students, teachers, parents, and their allies throughout Florida.”

One of Florida's more contentious policies, the parental rights law labeled “Don’t Say Gay," currently prohibits teachers from leading instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation to pre-K through grade eight students and was expanded in 2023 to restrict the usage of pronouns in schools. Under a separate Board of Education rule, teachers run the risk of losing their educator credentials for leading instruction on those topics to students through 12th grade.

These policies are a key part of Florida’s attempt to root out traces of liberal “indoctrination” in local schools, particularly centered on lessons and books about race and sexuality.

Republicans contend the laws are necessary to ensure the state’s youngest students learn about sexual orientation and gender identity from their parents and not at school.