Fla. parents bring first challenge to bill opponents dub 'Don't Say Gay'

Conservative activists and elected officials from across United States attend CPAC 2022 in Orlando
U.S. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 24, 2022. REUTERS/Marco Bello
  • Parents, students, advocacy group say law violates Constitutional rights
  • They seek court order blocking enforcement

(Reuters) - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other state officials were hit with a lawsuit on Thursday challenging a recently adopted law that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for many young students.

In a complaint filed Thursday in Tallahassee federal court, students, parents, a teacher and advocacy group Equality Florida called the Republican-backed law, dubbed the "don't say gay" bill by opponents, "offensive and unconstitutional" and asked the court to block its enforcement.

Their counsel includes well-known lawyer Roberta Kaplan, who mounted a successful challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court to part of the Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriage in United States v. Windsor.

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said of the lawsuit: "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."

The bill was signed by DeSantis on Tuesday and is set to take effect in July. It bars classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for children in kindergarten through third grade, or from about ages 5-9, in public schools.

It also prohibits such teaching that "is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate" for students in other grades. Parents will be allowed to sue school districts they believe to be in violation.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the law runs afoul of students' First Amendment right to receive information and ideas. They also said the law is unconstitutionally vague, failing to define what discussion is and is not allowed in schools, and that it will have the effect of discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students.

"Presented with vague prohibitions under the threat of litigation, schools and educators will be chilled from discussing or even referencing LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ students will be stigmatized, ostracized and denied the educational opportunities that their non-LGBTQ peers receive," the complaint said.

DeSantis, who is seeking reelection this year and is widely expected to be a candidate for president in 2024, has joined other Republicans nationwide in calling for parents to have more control of what young children learn in school. The new law has drawn harsh criticism, including from Democratic President Joe Biden, who has called it "hateful."

The case is Equality Florida et al v. DeSantis et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, No. 4:22-cv-00134.

For plaintiffs: Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan Hecker & Fink and others

For defendants: Not immediately available

Read more:

Florida governor signs bill limiting LGBTQ instruction in schools

(NOTE: This article has been updated with a comment from Gov. DeSantis' office and background on plaintiffs' attorney Kaplan.)

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.