Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sued by LGBTQ students, parents over new law

A group of over a dozen students, parents, educators and advocates filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Board of Education, alleging that newly enacted state legislation would “stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools.”

The Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, was signed Monday by the Republican governor, following months of heated debate. The measure prohibits “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity” in “kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Parents will be able to sue school districts over alleged violations, for damages or attorney’s fees, when the bill goes into effect July 1.

The 80-page complaint, submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is asking for the bill to be struck down. The suit, which lists among its plaintiffs the LGBTQ advocacy groups Equality Florida and Family Equality, alleges that the new law violates the First Amendment and other amendments of the Constitution, adding that it seeks to “erase” the existence of LGBTQ people in the state.

“With the passage of HB 1557, Florida has not only taken a giant step backwards, but it has done so at the expense of our children, the most vulnerable members of society,” Roberta Kaplan, a founding partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, said in a statement. “It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to our constitutional system than treating one group of school kids as second class based solely on who they are or who their parents are. This law cannot be allowed to stand.”

Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, called the lawsuit a “political Hail-Mary to undermine parental rights in Florida.”

“This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools,” Fenske said in a statement. 

She also insinuated that the Walt Disney Co., which has been engaged in a war of words with Florida’s governor over the LGBTQ education bill, funded the lawsuit. 

“It’s interesting to see that Disney did not directly join the suit as a named Plaintiff, given their recent activism,” Fenske said. “To the extent that Disney has funded these efforts, parents beware: the dollars you spend to make little boys’ and girls’ dreams come true are being used to sexualize your children in school.”

Disney did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment regarding Fenske’s remarks.

The new Florida law has spurred months of outcry across the nation since its introduction in January, with Hollywood actors, corporate executives and the White House all weighing in against it.

Proponents of the measure have contended that it will give parents more discretion over what their children learn in school, vindicating their “parental authority.”

DeSantis, a Republican who is running for re-election and is widely considered to be a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said the law will also ensure “that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

“In Florida, we don’t just think parents should be involved,” he said. “We insist that they be involved.”

The bill’s sponsors have repeatedly stressed that it would not prohibit students from talking about their LGBTQ families or bar classroom discussions about LGBTQ history, including events like the 2016 attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Instead, they have said the measure would ban the “instruction” of sexual orientation or gender identity, without providing examples of what that would entail during House and Senate debate.

But critics and legal experts have noted that it remains unclear what the “instruction” of sexual orientation or gender identity entails. A definition of that type of lesson is not in the bill’s text.

The lawsuit alleges that the authors of the bill “made a considered choice not to include definitions for any of these terms.”

“While the law’s statutory text is broad and vague, and its enforcement mechanism is deliberately diffuse, its ultimate objective is clear: H.B. 1557 seeks to discourage, deter, and ban any discussion of LGBTQ identities in public schools, while permitting discussion of heterosexuality and non-LGBTQ identities,” it read. “In this respect, H.B. 1557 recruits every parent as a roving censor, armed with a legal warrant to sue schools for damages whenever they believe a teacher, a student, or any ‘third party’ has provided any ‘classroom instruction’ that may be perceived as relating to ‘sexual orientation’ or “gender identity.”

Dan and Brent VanTice, parents of two first grade Florida students, are among the plaintiffs. They said their children are already “afraid that they will not be able to talk about their family at school.”

“We are heartbroken that our children are already feeling isolated and stigmatized by this law,” the couple said in a statement. 

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona met in private with LGBTQ students and their family members on Thursday to discuss the impacts of the law. 

Earlier in the week, Cardona issued a statement saying the Department of Education would “monitor” the law upon its implementation and “evaluate whether it violates federal civil rights law.” 

Lawmakers in several other states — including in Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Indiana — are weighing measures similar to Florida’s law. 

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