Florida’s controversial parental rights law upheld after court settlement

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A controversial Florida bill, dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” is being upheld under a settlement reached Monday in federal court that will allow students and teachers to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity freely, so long as it’s not part of instruction. 

The settlement aims to spell out exactly what is and is not permitted in Florida classrooms. The Florida Board of Education will send instructions to every school district saying the Florida law doesn’t prohibit discussing LGBTQ+ people, nor prevent anti-bullying rules on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or disallow Gay-Straight Alliance groups. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event at Jethro’s BBQ on January 11, 2024 in Ames, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The settlement also clarifies that the law is neutral — meaning that it applies to LGBTQ+ people and heterosexual people equally — excluding library books not being used for instruction in the classroom. 

The law also doesn’t apply to books with incidental references to LGBTQ+ characters or same-sex couples.

Roberta Kaplan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the settlement “re-establishes the fundamental principal, 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.” 

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office described the deal as a “major win against the activists who sought to stop Florida’s efforts to keep racial, gender and sexual ideology out of the classrooms.” 

“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.” 

DeSantis, who dropped his bid for the White House in January, has championed the law since before its passage in 2022 by the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature. It barred instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade and was expanded to all grades last year. 

The Florida State Capitol Building, as seen in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

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

Opponents, meanwhile, argued the law created a chilling effect in classrooms where, in some cases, books dealing with LGBTQ+ topics were removed. 

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