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Battling Against Bigotry: Florida families and advocacy groups sue to block state law known as ‘Don’t Say Gay’

Three families in Florida and a nonprofit advocacy group are challenging the constitutionality of Florida House Bill 1557, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, in a lawsuit filed this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners.

The law bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and restricts such discussions for students through grade 12 based on undefined standards of appropriateness. The statute, which took effect July 1, gives any parent the legal power to sue districts they believe are violating its terms.

The federal lawsuit was filed against school districts in Orange, Indian River, Duval and Palm Beach counties by the SPLC, Lambda Legal, Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) and private counsel Baker McKenzie. The groups are representing seven students and their parents, as well as CenterLink Inc., a nonprofit LGBTQ+ advocacy organization based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The suit argues that the law effectively silences and erases LGBTQ+ students and families, violating the right to free speech and expression protected by the First Amendment and the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

“Children should not be the political fodder used to inflame hatred and bigotry for the sake of winning and holding onto power,” said Bacardi Jackson, interim deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group, which is working with the SPLC’s LGBTQ Rights & Special Litigation Practice Group on the case. “But that’s exactly what this unconstitutional law seeks to do. The real lives and identities of all of our children and their families are not words on a page that can just be edited out, nor should they be. All of us, and our democracy, are irreparably harmed when people, and especially children, are relegated, made invisible, and targeted for who they are or who they love. This law cannot stand.”

The plaintiffs argue that implementation of the law shames and stigmatizes them, restricts their ability to access life-saving information and creates a climate of bigotry in schools.

“I am concerned that this law will eviscerate any hope of healthy and important discussions about LGBTQ+ issues or historical events, which are already lacking in our schools,” said plaintiff Will Larkins, a rising senior at Winter Park High School in Orange County. “Because of the vague language of the law, closed-minded parents are emboldened to become vigilantes to force their beliefs upon other people’s children by suing the school district over anything they disagree with.”

Plaintiffs David Dinan and Vikranth Gongidi said: “We are deeply concerned about the negative effect that HB 1557 has upon our family. The law limits our speech and our expression. The law forces us to self-censor for fear of prompting responses from our children’s teachers and classmates that would isolate our children and make them feel ashamed of their own family. It also causes irreparable harm to our children and to their development.” 

Jennifer and Matthew Cousins joined the suit as plaintiffs on behalf of their four children in Orange County.

“This law will prevent our two youngest children, rising first and third graders, from discussing their older nonbinary sibling in the classroom for fear of their teacher or their school getting in trouble,” the couple said in a joint statement. “The law also robs them of the opportunity of discussing their family like other non-LGBTQ+ children. It’s heartbreaking to know that my children may be bullied because this law paints our family as shameful. Every child deserves the right to celebrate their family in the form that it exists.”

Top picture: Marchers wave flags as they walk at the St. Pete Pier during a rally and march to protest against a bill dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill Saturday, March 12, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Credit: Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)