Duval among 4 Florida School Boards sued over gender identity, sexual orientation law

Parents, students and a nonprofit organization have filed a federal lawsuit against four Florida school districts, challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Parents, students and a nonprofit organization have filed a federal lawsuit against four Florida school districts, challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Orlando, seeks to block the school boards in Orange, Indian River, Duval and Palm Beach counties from carrying out the law (HB 1557), which passed during this year’s legislative session after fierce debate.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued in the 53-page complaint that the law violates First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection rights and improperly chills discussion of issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Florida enacted HB 1557 to silence and erase lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people and families,” the lawsuit said. “The law is profoundly vague and requires schools to ban undefined broad categories of speech, based on undefined standards such as ‘appropriateness.’”

Cameron Driggers, a 17-year-old, is poised to start his senior year in fall at Flagler Palm Coast High School. Because he identifies as gay, he said this year feels different to him because of the new law.

“I mean, it’s a vague enough that it empowers administration to target, you know, communities. And I think that’s why we’re seeing this lawsuit go on,” Driggers said.

Cindy Hill-Nobles, president of PFLAG of Jacksonville, agrees.

“It was a poorly written law, it leaves a lot of ambiguity and a lot of personal judgment in places where there shouldn’t be.”

The law, which has drawn nationwide attention, prevents instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade and requires that such instruction be “age-appropriate … in accordance with state academic standards” in older grades.

Republican lawmakers titled the measure the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Opponents labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Rook Ringer is an attorney who is not affiliated with the case.

“You can’t make a First Amendment law that says you can’t talk about certain things, and then not really define what those things are,” Ringer said.

Duval County Public Schools released a statement that reads:

“The district will always take steps necessary to comply with Florida laws. Any further district response will come within the context of the judicial proceedings.”

One of its board members, Charlotte Joyce, filed a resolution in May to have the district officially endorse the new law. That resolution was tabled and didn’t get a vote.

News4JAX asked her about that.

“I’d much rather be sued for following the law then for breaking it,” she said.

RELATED: LGBTQ+ advocates vow to continue fight despite ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Opponents also have challenged the constitutionality of the measure in a federal lawsuit filed in Tallahassee against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the State Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and several school boards. That case is pending.

The case filed Monday, however, only names as defendants the four school boards, with plaintiffs alleging that the law has caused changes in the way districts handle issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

As an example, it said the law has led the Orange County and Palm Beach County districts to remove LGBTQ-related materials from school libraries. Also, it said the Palm Beach County School Board last month adopted a policy to carry out the law.

“Teachers in Palm Beach County schools have already been instructed to review all classroom books and remove any that instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-3 and any that are not age or developmentally-appropriate for grades 4-12, including those about which the teacher is ‘unsure,’” the lawsuit said.

RELATED: Duval School Board OKs new policy to line up with controversial state law critics say could harm LGBTQ+ students

In part, the plaintiffs’ attorneys targeted what they allege is vagueness in the law. For instance, they said state standards have not been developed for what would be considered age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate instruction.

“HB 1557′s vagueness inevitably has led to, and continues to lead to, discriminatory and arbitrary application and enforcement across various school districts,” said the lawsuit filed by attorneys from Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Legal Counsel and the firm Baker McKenzie.

In addition, the complaint said school districts can face costly lawsuits if parents think the law has been violated.

“This vigilante enforcement mechanism, combined with the law’s intentionally vague and sweeping scope, invites parents who oppose any acknowledgement whatsoever of the existence of LGBTQ+ people to sue, resulting in schools acting aggressively to silence students, parents and school personnel,” the lawsuit said. “The law, by design, chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office last month asked U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to dismiss the constitutional challenge filed in Tallahassee. The motion, in part, argued that the state has the right to set curriculums for public schools.

“Falsely dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557 is nothing of the sort,” the state’s motion said. “Far from banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, the legislation expressly allows age- and developmentally appropriate education on those subjects. Consistent with that modest limitation, the law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for the youngest children, neutrally allowing all parents, no matter their views, to introduce those sensitive topics to their children as they see fit.”

The motion also disputed that the “Legislature acted out of animus against LGBTQ individuals.”

“The bill reflects no governmental preference about what students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “Those subjects must be taught appropriately and, for the youngest children, they may be taught by parents, not in public-school classroom settings. That is a legitimate (state) interest.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday in Orlando include Jen and Matt Cousins, the parents of four children in Orange County schools; Will Larkins, a rising senior at Orange County’s Winter Park High School who is president of the school’s Queer Student Union; David Dinan and Vik Gongidi, a married same-sex couple who have two children in Indian River County schools; and the non-profit CenterLink, Inc., which has members including LGTBQ community centers in Orange, Duval and Palm Beach counties.

About the Authors:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.