Pa. senators to introduce legislation similar to Fla.'s 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Andrew Goldstein
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community attend the "Say Gay Anyway" rally in Miami Beach, Florida, on March 13, 2022. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A legislative proposal that resembles the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill enacted earlier this year in Florida is expected to soon be submitted to the Pennsylvania state Senate.

Republican state Sens. Scott Martin and Ryan Aument, both of Lancaster, announced plans Wednesday to introduce a bill called the "Empowering Families in Education Act" that addresses discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.

The senators said they were making the proposal in response to concerns they received from parents that age-inappropriate conversations about these sensitive topics are occurring prematurely and without parental knowledge in elementary school classrooms around the state.

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"Some of these discussions that concerned parents have brought to our attention are formal and led by the teacher, while others are organic and initiated by students," the senators said in a statement. "But many of these discussions are occurring without the knowledge or consent of the parents, and we believe this is wrong. Parents have a fundamental right to decide the educational, moral, ideological and religious upbringing of their children without unreasonable government interference in the classroom undermining that right."

The bill could be approved by Republican majorities in the state Senate and House, although it faces a veto by Gov. Tom Wolf. Mr. Wolf's administration was quick to criticize the proposal.

"It's a disgrace that Republicans are pushing through LGBTQIA+ discrimination legislation during Pride Month," said Elizabeth Rementer, state press secretary. "Instead of censoring our students' education and demonizing anyone who is not cisgender, Republicans in the General Assembly should be using this time to pass a budget that appropriately funds basic education in the commonwealth so that students and teachers alike have all the tools and resources they need for a quality public education."

State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-West View, noted that parents and guardians already have the right to review curriculum and opt their children out of lessons that conflict with religious or deeply held beliefs.

Ms. Williams, minority chair of the Senate education committee, also expressed concerns over what impact such a bill could have on teachers and students.

"The effect that similar legislation in other states has had is to tie the hands of educators when dealing with delicate discussions in the classroom," Ms. Williams said Thursday. "These conversations don't necessarily come up in the course of classroom lessons, but rather when circumstances present teachable moments. We shouldn't be legislating how trusted adults in our school buildings provide support to our students, particularly those most vulnerable students, when they need it most."

The proposal from Mr. Martin and Mr. Aument appears similar in several ways to Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" bill that brought nationwide scrutiny to the Sunshine State earlier this year as opponents criticized it for marginalizing the LGBTQ community.

The Florida bill that became law in March prohibited instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

The Pennsylvania bill would forbid classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. In addition, the bill would require schools to adhere to existing state standards of age-appropriate content for any discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation that occur in grades 6-12.

The Florida bill required schools to inform parents when their children receive mental, emotional or physical health services, unless educators believe there is a risk of "abuse, abandonment or neglect."

The Pennsylvania bill would make public schools create a policy for notifying parents when there is a change to a student's services or monitoring and prohibit a school from withholding information from parents in accordance with existing state and federal laws, but it would also provide exemptions "if it can be reasonably demonstrated that parental notification would result in abuse or abandonment of a minor," the senators said.

The senators said the bill was not a ban on all discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in school settings, and it would not stop teachers from having conversations or offering support services to LGBTQ students. Instead, they said, the goal of the bill is to improve transparency and allow parents to make decisions for their child's education.

But the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth's largest teachers group, said when attempts are made to limit what teachers can say in a classroom, there's no telling where it may stop.

"PSEA has serious concerns about any effort aimed at censoring educators or preventing them from valuing, affirming and supporting students and their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity," PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal said. "Once politicians start censoring what teachers say and how they do their jobs, there is no telling how far that censorship will extend or what they will want to censor next. It is a very slippery slope."

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, had a strong reaction to the proposal.

"I would go back into teaching just so I could violate the law," she said.

The PFT has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ students and educators. Last year, the federation passed a resolution calling for teachers unions to partner with school districts to recruit, retain and respect LGBTQ educators. The resolution was later adopted by the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said the proposed bill would be harmful to students — possibly leading to an uptick in suicides — and have a chilling effect on teachers.

"After the gains we've made in our schools and the conversations we've had ... this would put Pennsylvania schools back 50 years," she said.