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‘Parents’ bill of rights’ proposal stalls in Florida Senate

The bill was opposed by LGBTQ advocates for fear it could require school counselors to out gay or transgender students to their parents.
State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, speaks during a Senate Rules Committee hearing at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Aileen Perilla) [AILEEN PERILLA | AP]

TALLAHASSEE — A broad, wide-ranging bill that would create a new chapter of Florida law entitled the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” failed to get a vote in the Senate Rules committee Monday, with the committee adjourning in the middle of the final debate over the bill because the senators ran out of time.

Unlike House committees, Senate committees rarely vote to extend their meetings and are cut off at the minute they’re scheduled to end. The meeting ended in the middle of a speech by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, about why he was against the bill.

This means the bill may be dead in the Senate, as the Rules committee did not have any more meetings scheduled as of Monday evening.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, alleged that the time running out was intentional. The bill was postponed in the previous Senate Rules committee meeting, also because of lack of time to get through all the questions surrounding it.

“I think there’s not a will to do it this year,” Stargel said shortly after the meeting was dramatically cut off. “I don’t think they want to publicly admit that because it’s called ‘parental rights.'"

The bill states that it is “a fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education and care” of their kids. As such, it states that information related to children’s health and education cannot be withheld from their parents or legal guardians.

District school boards would be required to “develop and adopt a policy to promote parental involvement in the public school system,” including a procedure for parents to object to any instructional materials. School boards are required to notify parents ahead of time and have a method for them to withdraw their kids from sex education or instruction related to AIDS. Both of those pieces already exists in current law.

Stargel has said that the bill doesn’t create new parental rights, but emphasizes those already in statute and gathers them in one place.

But the bill also states that parents have a “right” to exempt their children from vaccines and that parents must give their written consent for minors to receive health care services. Opponents have argued that would create a new avenue to prevent minors from being treated for sexually transmitted diseases or receive mental health services without their parents’ knowledge.

The Florida Counseling Association has said the bill threatens students’ confidentiality with their school counselors, forcing them to involve parents and potentially disclose information that students told them in confidence, including if the student is gay or transgender but is not yet out to their parents. The association expressed these concerns in a letter to the Rules committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

The bill is backed by the Florida Citizens Alliance, a Naples-based group that has made its mission in Tallahassee to ban what they say are "pornographic" materials or books that amount to religious "indoctrination" or "unbalanced propaganda." In the past, the group successfully pushed through bills that aimed to make it easier for both parents and other members of the public to challenge the books kids read in school.

Some of the texts the group finds objectionable include Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Steve Vernon, who’s on the board of directors for the Florida Citizens Alliance, said after the meeting that he was “infuriated that they allowed (Farmer) to filibuster to the point where we can’t even get a vote."

“They don’t care about parents’ rights. They believe government knows better than parents as to how to raise their kids,” he added.

But opponents of the bill celebrated. Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, which advocates for equal rights for LGBTQ people, said he was “relieved."

The House version, which is more expansive, is still alive and is set to be heard on the floor. A similar bill was proposed last year but it didn’t make it across the finish line.

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