Legal Settlement Clarifies Reach of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law

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​The State of Florida and plaintiffs who challenged a parental rights law that critics nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” agreed to a settlement on Monday that clarifies the reach of the legislation, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The plaintiffs, a group that included students, parents, educators and L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organizations, had blamed the law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, for causing confusion and fear in public schools. The settlement says that students and teachers are allowed to talk about sexual identity and gender orientation in public schools, as long as it is not part of formal classroom instruction.

The plaintiffs claimed victory, saying it would put an end to discrimination that resulted from ambiguities in the law, officially called the Parental Rights in Education Act.

The administration of Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, also portrayed the settlement as a major win, saying it confirmed that critics had willfully misinterpreted the law as applying more broadly than it actually did.

Opponents had argued that the law’s vague language scared students into thinking they could not create art depicting same-sex parents, teachers into thinking they could not display a photograph of a same-sex partner, and schools into thinking they could no longer allow gay-themed books or student organizations that support gay students.

Roberta Kaplan, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the settlement “safeguards against hate and bullying.” She added: “Simply put, the State of Florida has now made it clear that L.G.B.T.Q.+ kids, parents and teachers in Florida can, in fact, say that they are gay.”

In its own statement, Mr. DeSantis’s office said the settlement would ensure that “children will be protected from radical gender and sexual ideology in the classroom” because the law remains on the books. The administration now expects the case to be dismissed, said Ryan Newman, the governor’s general counsel.

“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,” Mr. Newman said in the statement.

The settlement, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, comes nearly two years after Mr. DeSantis signed the law. The measure became central to the image he had built ahead of his failed presidential campaign, of a Republican who would not yield to the political left, which he derided as “woke.”

Mr. DeSantis has long defended the law as a popular, common-sense measure. Critics, he said, “actually support having woke gender ideology in the first grade.”

But the nickname stuck. And the law, along with a slew of other contentious ones signed by Mr. DeSantis in recent years, led organizations such as Equality Florida, one of the plaintiffs, to issue travel advisories last year, citing concern about diminishing rights and freedoms in the state.

Cecile Houry, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that she and her partner, Rabbi Amy Morrison, had sued because they feared that the law could cause their two young children in public schools to face discrimination for having two mothers. The legislation might not explicitly say “don’t say gay,” said Dr. Houry, a grants manager for the city of Miami Beach, but that has been its practical effect.

“When you make everything a potential issue, a potential lawsuit and a potential firing, it really does that,” she said. “People could not or felt they should not or felt they were at risk if they did say something, so it ended up muting or silencing a lot of things.”

The law allows for parents to sue school districts over any perceived violations.

The settlement language, which the state must share with Florida’s 67 public school districts, makes clear that the law does not restrict “literary references to a gay or transgender person or to a same-sex couple” in public school classrooms. It says that L.G.B.T.Q. references are not prohibited in literature, classroom discussions, students’ academic work or its review. Nor are such references prohibited when it comes to teachers’ spouses or partners, or any other context outside of instruction.

The settlement also says that instruction must be neutral on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, meaning that teachers cannot, for example, teach that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality or bisexuality.

It also clarifies that the law does not prohibit lessons about or intervention to stop bullying, and does not require the removal of “safe spaces” in schools for L.G.B.T.Q. people or stickers that identify such places.

And it makes clear that student-run organizations such as gay-straight alliances are permitted in Florida schools, along with book fairs, musicals or plays with L.G.B.T.Q. references or characters, and expressions and clothing that do not conform with a person’s perceived gender identity.

The law does not apply to school library books, so long as they are not being used for instruction, the settlement stipulates.


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