TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After contentious debate and a handful of Republican state lawmakers breaking from their party to vote against it, a controversial bill limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity passed Thursday in the Florida House.
Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" legislation, which has been condemned by critics as the "don't say gay" bill, continues its journey to the Senate.
HB 1557 prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, or at any grade level if it's deemed not age or developmentally-appropriate.
"It sends a terrible message to our youth that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction," Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who is gay, said on the House floor Thursday.
It also bars school personnel from discouraging or prohibiting the notification of parents or parental involvement in critical decisions affecting a student's mental, physical or emotional health or well-being.
"I believe in the idea that creating boundaries at an early age of what is appropriate in our schools, when we are funding our schools, is not hate," said Republican Rep. Joe Harding, the bill's sponsor, prior to Thursday's vote.
The bill has been highly criticized by state Democratic lawmakers. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and House Democrats this week denounced the bill and other bills dubbed "anti-LGBTQ."
Fried accused Gov. Ron DeSantis, who she is running against, and Florida Republicans of launching an "all-out culture war to play to their base in an election year" and called it "state-sanctioned hatred and censorship."
The Florida Education Association teachers union criticized the bill and HB 7 – known as the “Individual Freedom” bill – as "censorship" legislation that will "limit what schools can say and teach regarding our nation's history and regarding issues related to students who are part of or associated with the LGBTQ+ community."
“Educators love their students. We all want to make sure that every child can grow and thrive, regardless of race, background, ZIP code or ability,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said in a statement. “These bills mean some of our students will no longer feel safe and secure, or even seen, based on who they are.
"Both bills promote discrimination and censorship, and send the clearly un-American message to students that individuality is not valued, that everyone must conform to a single point of view.”
Seven Republicans broke with their party to vote against the bill in the House. They were Rep. Vance Aloupis, of Miami, Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, of Coral Gables, Rep. Chip LaMarca, of Lighthouse Point, Rep. Amber Mariano, of Hudson, Rep. Jim Mooney, of Miami, Rep. Rene Plasencia, of Orlando, and Rep. Will Robinson, of Bradenton.
Rep. James Bush, of Miami, broke from his party, as well – becoming the sole Democrat to vote in favor of the bill.
On Tuesday, a controversial amendment to the bill was withdrawn by its Republican sponsor after critics argued it could forcibly out LGBTQ children.
It would've required school officials to notify parents if a child confided in them, even if there were concerns it could result in abuse or neglect.
Without the amendment, such information can be withheld "if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect."
Other amendments of the bill, such as one filed by Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani, failed to make it in the version that is set for a final House vote.
Eskamani's amendment was aimed at protecting LGBTQ students by allowing them to sue the Florida Department of Education if their "school reveals their sexual orientation to the student's parent or guardian" and "causes irreparable harm."
Supporters of the bill say topics of sexual orientation or gender identity are not appropriate conversation for younger students.
"My purpose with this is to give, really, some relief to the school staff that they're not responsible for every issue in every person's life," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
DeSantis has previously said, "I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes or to try to inject."
"At the end of the day, you know, my goal is to educate kids on the subjects—math, reading, science—all the things that are so important," the governor added at the time.
The bill is scheduled to appear Monday morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee.