Lawsuit charges ‘parental rights’ measure violates federal laws

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A federal lawsuit filed in Orlando is seeking to stop implementation of House Bill 1557, the “Parental Rights in Education” measure that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The suit was filed by families of public school children in Orange County and Indian River County, an Orange County high school student who is openly gay, and a coalition of LBTTQ+ community centers.

The plaintiffs seek to have the law tossed for violating freedom of speech, for depriving due process for families of gay children, and for depriving equal justice under federal law.

“HB 1557 was enacted to shame and silence LGBTQ+ children and families, stigmatizing them, subjecting them to adverse treatment, and barring them from full and equal protection in their school communities,” the suit argues.

The suit goes after the school districts implementing the law in the cases of the defendants: the school boards of Orange County, Indian River County, Duval County and Palm Beach County.

The suit was filed in U.S District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Orlando.

“HB 1557 shames and stigmatizes these students and families, invites school officials, teachers, and classmates to view them as inferior, harms their long term health and well-being, and denies them equal educational opportunities on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender status,” the suit declares, among several charges.

The named plaintiffs are Jennifer Cousins and Matthew Cousins of Orange County, along with their four minor children, identified as P.C., M.C., S.C. and N.C.; Will Larkins of Orange County; David Dinan and Vikranth Reddy Gongidi and their minor children, identified as K.R.D. and R.R.D.; and CenterLink Inc., which is based in Fort Lauderdale and has member centers in Orange, Duval and Palm Beach counties.

The Cousinses have one child the suit describes as a “non-binary” seventh grader. The suit charges that the child is losing the chance to feel safe and supported at the school; that his siblings are losing the right to talk about their sibling; that a “critical lifeline” in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance student group is being lost; and that “parents looking to enforce HB 1557 have already begun to target teachers who sponsor those groups.”

“This law restricts LGTQ+ students’ abilities to access life-saving information, including Plaintiff Will Larkins’ ability to share the knowledge that helped him understand and love himself,” the complaint charges. “When Will learned about LGBTQ+ people and their history, he finally realized he was not broken or wrong, as his childhood bullies had him believe.”

Dinan and Gongidi are same-sex parents who contend the law forces them to hide that fact in school functions. “They also want their children to be able to speak about their family at this critical age when family is often a topic of discussion. But HB 1557 places a barrier to that most basic goal,” the complaint states.

CenterLink said the loss of school supports for LGBTQ+ youth, and the failure to provide safe environments, has led to increased needs for counseling sessions at LGBTQ+ community centers, “requiring the diversion of resources previously designed for other critical services.”

The law’s vague language — which has led proponents and opponents to sound as if they were talking about other laws — is an issue in itself, the suit contends.

“HB 1557’s vagueness inevitably has led to, and continues to lead to, discriminatory and arbitrary application and enforcement across various school districts,” the suit charges. “As noted above, the law fails to define numerous terms that are integral to its scope, including ‘classroom instruction,’ ‘third parties,’ ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity,’ ‘age-appropriate,’ and ‘developmentally appropriate.’”

The suit continues, saying, “HB 1557 chills schools from responding effectively to bullying based on a student’s sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”

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