© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Hillsborough High School students protest a Republican-backed bill dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” that would prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, a measure Democrats denounced as being anti-LGBTQ, in Tampa, Flor
By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -Florida education officials voted on Wednesday to ban classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in all public school grades, expanding on a law signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that barred such lessons for younger students and was derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The new rule is part of a broader rightward push on cultural issues championed by DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024.
The board, whose members are appointed by the governor, unanimously approved prohibiting lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in grades four through 12, unless the instruction is required by state standards or is part of a health class that parents can opt their children out of.
Last year, DeSantis signed legislation that outlawed instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade, arguing that parents, rather than teachers, should decide when to discuss those subjects with their children.
Critics, including Democratic President Joe Biden, said the law would marginalize already vulnerable LGBTQ students. The statute sparked an ongoing battle between DeSantis and the Walt Disney (NYSE:) Co, after the entertainment corporation publicly opposed the law.
Dozens of speakers gave impassioned remarks, mostly in opposition to the measure, during nearly an hour of public comment ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
Many opponents said the rule’s language was so vague that teachers would likely avoid the subjects altogether rather than risk their careers.
Some speakers asked whether teachers might skip works of fiction that feature gay characters, for instance, while others wondered whether LGBTQ students, or students with LGBTQ families, would feel unable to discuss their personal lives in class.
“This rule is by design a tool for curating fear, anxiety and the erasure of our LGBTQ community,” said Joe Saunders, the senior political director for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.
The state education commissioner, Manny Diaz, defended the proposal, saying it simply clarified that teachers should adhere to state-approved curricula. Students who need counseling, including for mental health, should be referred to professional school counselors rather than teachers, he said.
“We’re not removing anything here,” he said. “All we are doing is setting the expectations so that our teachers are clear that they are teaching to the standards.”
Violating the rule could result in the suspension or revocation of an educator’s teaching license.
Members of several conservative groups that focus on education, including Moms for Liberty and Florida Citizens Alliance, praised the rule for protecting parental rights, while other supporters said it would prevent the “indoctrination” of children.
“These decisions should be left at home for parents to decide when their children should be exposed to this material,” said Ryan Kennedy of the Florida Citizens Alliance.
The regulation does not require legislative approval. The Republican-majority legislature is separately considering a bill that would expand the 2022 law through eighth grade.
Americans are sharply divided along party lines on the issue.
Some 72% of Democrats in a Reuters/Ipsos poll from March said they were more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who supported letting teachers discuss sexual orientation and gender identity at school.
Among Republicans, however, 76% said they were less likely to support such a candidate.