Texas Senate again advances proposed restrictions on lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation

Lufkin students sit in an art class in January. A Texas bill would prohibit classroom lessons and teacher guidance about gender identity or sexual orientation. (Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune, Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate has once again advanced legislation that would severely limit classroom lessons, teacher guidance and school programming about sexual orientation and gender identity through 12th grade in Texas schools.

The upper chamber voted 19-12 late Tuesday to formally approve House Bill 890 after the Senate education committee added the proposed restrictions to the legislation. The amended bill will now return to the House, where members of the lower chamber can either accept the significant changes or ask for a conference committee to hash out the differences in the last week of the session.

This vote also marks the third time the GOP-controlled body has passed what critics dub the “Don’t Say Gay” provision, which they say is both unconstitutional and harmful to LGBTQ Texans. Supporters of the proposal, however, say it is needed to expand parental rights — a key focus for Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, this session.

“This bill takes a stand by enshrining parental rights and ensuring that Texas parents are the chief decision makers in their child’s education,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, the Conroe Republican who is sponsoring the bill in the upper chamber.

Authored by state Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, HB 890 initially focused on the processes school districts must adopt to receive and resolve complaints. It passed unanimously out of the House in late April.

On May 18, almost a month later, Republicans drastically changed HB 890 to add language that would severely limit classroom lessons, campus activities and educator guidance regarding gender and sexual orientation in all public and charter schools. The Senate version also has several other proposals that its backers said would similarly broaden parental rights, such as requiring schools to notify parents of any changes to their children’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.”

Critics, though, have repeatedly warned that while the proposed restrictions don’t explicitly target queer people, their vague and broad language could still force Texas schools to ignore the LGBTQ community’s existence. This could include preventing educators from discussing a wide range of important issues such as the AIDS epidemic, women’s suffrage and marriage equality. And despite the bill saying it “may not be misconstrued to limit” students’ right to engage in speech or expressions, opponents said it would still violate students’ First Amendment right to receive information.

“Texas public schools are designed to build a stronger, brighter future for our state, to prepare young people to be engaged and valuable members of our community,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said in a statement. “Today the senate has decided that young LGBTQ+ people do not deserve such a bright future.”

These concerns are similar to what LGBTQ advocates have voiced in Florida, which expanded its own restrictions through the 12th grade last month. Previously, the rules applied only to pre-K through third grade.

During the Monday debate, Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, asked Creighton about different scenarios that the “Don’t Say Gay” provision could affect. For instance, she asked whether it would ban gay-straight alliances. Creighton said a teacher could sponsor such a club, but they wouldn’t be able to provide curriculum or instruction that violates the provision.

In addition, the bill’s critics worry that requiring schools to notify parents of any changes to their children’s mental, emotional or physical health would forcibly out LGBTQ students and potentially put them at risk of harm at home. Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, tried to address this issue last month when the Senate considered another bill that included these provisions — but that effort failed.

During the Monday debate, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, also successfully amended HB 890 to tack on language from Senate Bill 595, which would require public school employees to get the written consent of a student’s parent before they could conduct a psychological or psychiatric examination, test or treatment of the student. SB 595, authored by Kolkhorst herself, passed out of the Senate earlier this month but failed to be considered by the House by the Tuesday deadline.

Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, attached an amendment to also require charter schools to review and adopt human sexuality curriculum in a way that keeps parents informed, such as through local school health advisory councils.

The Senate vote on HB 890 followed the recent demise of other efforts to advance these proposals in the House.

Authored by Creighton, Senate Bill 8 as passed by the upper chamber was a sweeping education proposal that supporters have framed as a key way to expand parental rights. It was the first bill this session intended to restrict instructions and activities regarding sexual orientation and gender identity up to 12th grade.

It also pushed a program that would let parents use state funds to pay for private schools — a top priority for Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. But after cruising through the Senate last month, SB 8 faced a rocky road in the House. In early May, state representatives substantially amended the bill to focus solely on a watered-down voucher-like program, which then fizzled in committee after getting a veto threat from the governor.

The second setback for this effort came as Senate Bill 1072, which copied SB 8’s “Don’t Say Gay” clause, also failed to pass out of its House committee by a key Saturday deadline.

But two days before this deadline, Senate Republicans gave new life to the provision by moving it and other parental rights proposals from SB 8 to HB 890, originally a bipartisan bill that drew no testimony when it came up for a committee hearing in the upper chamber on May 18. The Senate Education Committee, which Creighton chairs, voted along party lines to advance the amended bill later that evening.

“Anytime we can expand on parental rights, we need to do that,” Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said during the committee meeting. “We’ve had multiple attempts, and you wouldn’t think it would be difficult to get something out here that promotes parental rights.”

Bell declined to comment Monday about whether he supports the amended bill.

Critics quickly flagged and condemned the updated bill, which came amid a slate of GOP legislation this session that would restrict the rights and representation of LGBTQ Texans.

“It is unconscionable that lawmakers would attempt to sneak a ‘Don’t Say Gay/Transgender’ requirement into a bill that was not at all crafted for this purpose and previously received bipartisan support,” Carisa Lopez, senior political director of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a May 18 press release. “Anti-LGBTQ legislation of this nature creates an unsafe, hostile learning environment for LGBTQIA+ students, families, and educators while violating the rights of all families and parents who support inclusivity.”

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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