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Bill makes it possible for parents to opt out of LGBTQ+ topics at school

This article was originally published in the New Hampshire Bulletin.

In early May, Democrats in the House of Representatives rejected the Fairness in Education Act. The bill was the latest attempt to require public school teachers to answer parents when they ask questions about changes in their child’s gender identity.

But another bill is in the works that supporters say would give parents more control over their children’s education in school — and opponents say would encroach on classroom instruction.

House Bill 1312 would allow parents to opt their children out of any “instruction or program of” sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression.

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Currently, state law allows parents to withdraw their children from classes related to human sex education. HB 1312 would expand that option to apply to the additional subjects.

Under existing procedure, parents must notify the school district in writing that they object to the course materials. And parents must propose alternative education agreed to by the school district, and pay for it themselves if there are costs involved.

HB 1312 would expand the opt-out and require school district staff to notify parents at least two weeks in advance of material that could fall into this category.

In addition, the bill would prevent school districts from requiring teachers to withhold information from parents about their child’s well-being, including information about their sexuality. Individual teachers can still choose not to answer parents’ questions about their child’s sexuality, but school districts cannot make it a blanket policy under the bill.

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The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives 186-185, also appears likely to clean up the Republican-led Senate; the Senate Education Committee voted 3-1 in a party-line vote to recommend the proposal.

Supporters say the bill would give parents more control over how their children learn about sensitive topics. But opponents said the bill would reinforce discriminatory attitudes against LGBTQ+ people, and that the notification process would be disruptive for teachers.

“The bill seems to target, and I think stigmatizes, any instruction about LGBTQ+ people, and I think this language really sends the message to LGBTQ+ students that their feelings and identities are something to be shunned, feared and possible should even be censored, or not even recognized,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

According to Sen. Tim Lang, a Republican from Sanbornton, the bill would encourage parents to communicate with their children about the topics — knowing they would be covered in the curriculum — which he said could foster better connections between parents and children .

“Parents should have these discussions with their own children and not let teachers do it. This bill is the reason for parents to have those conversations.”

Lang said the notification requirements would not prevent school districts from teaching the subjects, but rather let parents choose whether to participate. And he argued that the bill is not intended to allow parents to withdraw their child from material relating to LGBTQ+ people or movements in history.

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“It’s just informative for parents,” he said. “There is nothing stopping the school from teaching these lessons. The class is allowed. That just means that if you do it because it is a sensitive subject, you should inform your parents.”

A lesson about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978, would not fall under the definition of sexual orientation instruction, Lang said, because Milk was a historical figure. But any instruction addressed to students themselves that delves into their own sexual orientation or gender identity — such as that in a sex education class — should be made public, he said.

But teachers union representatives said the bill as written does not make this distinction clear. Teachers could interpret the law to mean that any class discussing the history of LGBTQ+ rights would have to be noted in advance, opponents said. And English teachers might feel compelled to make public any book that features LGBTQ+ characters, and to allow parents to prevent their children from reading those books.

“If you pass this bill that expands the areas a parent must be notified and a child can choose from, where will this stop?” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Hampshire. “…Can you study the gender pay gap in the same jobs in an economics class, which has to do with gender discrimination policies?”

Lang disagreed with that characterization; Books that feature transgender or non-heterosexual characters would not automatically invoke the disclosure requirement, he said. Only instruction specifically intended to teach students about sexual orientation or gender identity would require advance notice, he said.

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Brian Hawkins, government relations director for the National Education Association of New Hampshire, argued that the topics the bill would add to the parental notification law were so broad that teachers would find the law difficult to follow.

“We believe that 1312 is yet another piece of legislation that would significantly limit teachers’ ability to teach, and provides far too many instances of vague language and framework for determining when certain actions violate the statute,” Hawkins said.

New Hampshire lawmakers first passed the law in 2017 that allows parents to opt out of sex ed. In recent years, Republicans have pushed for more parental control over school library books, and have pushed for legislation requiring teachers to answer all parents’ questions about textbooks. their child’s preferred pronouns or gender identity at school.

The latest parental notification bill, Senate Bill 341, was “indefinitely postponed” earlier this month, on a voting day when House Democrats had a majority over Republicans in the nearly evenly divided chamber. That motion means that the bill is dead and that it cannot return as an amendment to another bill this parliamentary term.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Dana Wormald: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Tweet.

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