Florida legislators have had a busy week, taking action on a number of GOP priorities related to America’s culture wars as the state’s legislative session draws to a near-close.
The state’s GOP-controlled House and Senate this week passed controversial laws that would: ban certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom; create a new security office to investigate election crimes and increase penalties for violating the state’s elections laws; and ban public schools and private businesses from teaching people to feel guilty for historical events committed by people of their races.
The bills now head to the desk of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature. DeSantis, who is up for reelection in 2022 and weighing a potential 2024 presidential bid, has signaled support for all three legislative measures.
Republicans have repeatedly said that the bills on classroom curriculum are focused on parental choice and are not meant to be discriminatory.
“Read the bill. Trust parents. It is deeply disturbing that Democrats want adults who aren’t a 5 year old’s parent talking to them about sex,” the Florida Republican Party said on Twitter on Thursday, a day after passage of the legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents.
But Democrats in the state and opponents across the country have publicly decried the bills, suggesting they target minority communities and limit freedom of speech.
“It’s definitely the session of culture wars and red meat,” Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, told CNN. “Attacks are being aimed at every community you care about, from Black and brown people to LGBTQ+ folks. We’re also seeing attacks on immigrants.”
Eskamani said Florida Democrats are aware that the state is a testing ground for GOP policy priorities that could make their way elsewhere.
“The concern a lot of us have is whatever happens in Florida, it does spread to other states,” she said.
Bill on sexual orientation instruction
The Florida Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would ban certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. The legislation now awaits DeSantis’ approval, who has signaled his support for the measure.
Conservatives have argued that the bill – titled Parental Rights in Education – is needed to give parents greater oversight over what students learn and discuss at school, stressing that LGBTQ-related topics should be left for families to discuss at home.
“To provide protections for parents, for preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders, I mean that is something, I think, most parents would appreciate,” DeSantis told reporters about the bill last week. “And we send the kids to school – young kids – and we want them to learn the basics. Some of these issues that are just simply not age-appropriate, I think parents want to see protection for that.”
Opponents, however, have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, arguing the ban it creates would negatively impact an already marginalized community. They’ve pointed to data showing that LGBTQ youth reported lower rates of attempting suicide when they had access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces.
The bill’s opponents have also decried a part of the legislation that allows parents to bring civil suits against school districts for any potential violations of their rules, arguing it would open educators up to an endless barrage of litigation. The legislation has received scrutiny from Democrats in the state and elsewhere, including from President Joe Biden, who vowed last month to protect LGBTQ youth from such measures.
The bill has also drawn the ire of Gen Z advocates, who have for weeks led major demonstrations and school walkouts in protest of the legislation. Jack Petocz, a high school junior who organized walkouts statewide and led his own at Flagler Palm Coast High School, said he had been suspended “indefinitely” after he distributed Pride flags at the demonstration.
“On the day of protest, they tried to take away our Pride flags and stop us from distributing them at the event,” Petocz told CNN. “I resisted, because Pride flags are a symbol of our community, of our embrace of our queerness, and when you have these bills trying to target and silence queer youth, I didn’t understand. I thought it was irrational to try to take away our Pride flags at a rally that is about anti-gay legislation.”
Equality Florida, the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy organization, has threatened legal action against the legislation.
Bill to create election police force
The Florida House on Wednesday night passed a voting overhaul bill that would create a security office to investigate election crimes and increase penalties for violating the state’s elections laws. The measure is now headed to DeSantis for his signature.
The legislation would establish a scaled-back version of an elections police force first proposed by DeSantis last year.
The bill would set up an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State with a staff of 15 to conduct preliminary investigations of election fraud. In addition, the measure calls for DeSantis to appoint up to 10 law enforcement officers to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to probe election crimes.
The combined effort would have a budget of about $3.7 million, said state Rep. Daniel Perez, the Republican lawmaker guiding the bill through the House.
Perez said the new election crimes investigations unit would serve as an “extra resource” for local election supervisors to ensure “there are absolutely no cases falling through the cracks.”
“The more resources we have to attack the bad people, the bad actors who are committing fraud, the better for the state of Florida,” Perez said during floor debate Tuesday night. “The more the merrier.”
Its opponents argued that this would deter voters.
“The Anti-Voter Freedom Act was designed by Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans, under the guise of ‘election security,’ to reduce turnout and make it harder for people to vote,” Florida Democratic Party Director of Voter Protection Sam Koplewicz said in a statement about the bill Thursday.
If the measure is enacted, Florida would become one of the first states to have a unit focused on election fraud.
Election fraud is exceedingly rare, and Democrats and Republicans in the state previously described the 2020 election as smoothly run. DeSantis said last year that Florida had passed its automatic post-election audits with “flying colors.”
Ban on teaching students to ‘feel guilt’ for history
On Thursday, the Florida Senate voted to ban public schools and private businesses from teaching people to feel guilty for historical events committed by people of their races.
The bill – which would also prohibit instruction that says certain races or sexes are privileged or oppressed – had previously passed the state House and now heads to DeSantis’ desk.
DeSantis has led that charge on Florida’s classroom culture war. Last year, his administration banned critical race theory from K-12 schools. In December, he called on lawmakers to extend the prohibition to all public schools, including colleges, and the workplace, in a proposal he named the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act.
“We must protect Florida workers against the hostile work environment that is created when large corporations force their employees to endure CRT-inspired ‘training’ and indoctrination,” DeSantis said at the time.
The legislation passed by the Senate does not specifically mention critical race theory, which acknowledges that racism is both systemic and institutional in American society and has benefited White people and oppressed Black and brown Americans. A bill analysis by state Senate staff, however, highlights the teaching of critical race theory as something that would be prohibited under the legislation.
The bill previously said instruction cannot make people feel “discomfort” for their races or sexes, which drew widespread concern that it could lead to schools desensitizing historical events such as Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or the Stonewall riots. However, that language was changed to prohibit instruction that someone “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for their race or sex.
The legislation attempts to make clear that schools can teach about slavery and the history of racial segregation and discrimination in an “age-appropriate manner” but the instruction cannot “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”
Democrats insist that despite Republicans’ messaging the bills passed this week are mal-intentioned.
“It’s clear based on the rhetoric, based on who supports them, based on the intention of those who have supported these bills that the goal is to erase LGBTQ+ people, it’s to erase conversations on Black history, on parts of America’s past that are unsavory but are important for us to acknowledge so that we don’t repeat them,” Eskamani said.