Paxton, Texas GOP support of controversial Florida law grows before legislative session

Paxton, Texas GOP support of controversial Florida law grows before legislative session

States “have a strong interest” in protecting parental rights, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued in a brief filed last month in support of Florida’s controversial parental rights in education law.

The amicus brief, filed by a coalition of 14 state attorneys general, led by Texas, defended the Florida law that bans classroom instruction that includes “sexual orientation or gender identity” through third grade, but some have challenged it as harmful and ambiguous.

Students, parents and teachers have challenged Florida’s law — passed in March 2022 — in federal court, arguing that it discriminates against the LGBTQ community and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia recently signed on in support of the lawsuit, arguing that the law is harmful and could have “serious negative health impacts on LGBTQ+ students.”

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But Paxton and other Republican attorneys general say the law does not discriminate against the LGBTQ community and that states have the authority to “govern the curriculum for sensitive subjects for young children.”

It also signals the appetite lawmakers have in some states, including Texas, to replicate Florida’s law.

Paxton’s brief is just the latest in a series of moves by Republican lawmakers and top state officials that signal an appetite for legislation targeting discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation within schools.

Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Gov. Dan Patrick last year expressed interest in repeating Florida’s controversial law.

In November, Abbott hinted at his support for a ban on what he called “indoctrination” in schools in response to a Fox News story about a Fort Worth teacher who reportedly portrayed students and staff as non-binary and discussed it with high school students.

“Our schools are for education, not indoctrination,” Abbott wrote, and said lawmakers would “stop this nonsense” in the next legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Abbott said schools should “stop pushing smart agendas,” a phrase conservatives have used to refer to the teaching of critical race theory, gender fluidity and other culture war topics in schools.

Patrick also highlighted Florida’s copycat law and school library overhaul during his re-election bid last year.

In an email sent by his campaign in April 2022, which began with criticism of Disney, Patrick wrote that he was angry with the company. He said Disney pushed back against the Florida law, which he characterized as a mandate that “schools cannot sexualize children in elementary school.”

After his re-election in November, Patrick laid out his priorities for the Senate. Priorities focus heavily on education, including a bill on parents’ rights.

At least half a dozen bills dealing with parental rights have already been filed ahead of the next session. Among them are SB 176, by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, which would establish the “Texas Parent Empowerment Program” — a program similar to a school voucher — and HB 631, introduced by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, which seeks to cement parents’ rights to information about children’s academic, mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Two other bills would also require parental permission before students can attend a sex education class or receive instruction on other topics related to human sexuality, if passed.

Tension over how to address gender and sexuality in schools has put students and teachers at the point of an increasingly bitter political battle, including when Abbott ordered Child Protective Services to investigate reports of children in care about their gender.

Ahead of the legislative session, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus introduced bills to expand restrictions on transgender athletes at the collegiate level and bar minors from receiving gender-affirming care, such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy.

The curriculum has also been targeted, with more than a dozen bills addressing what aspects of sexuality and human reproduction are included in sex education classes, what students are taught about bullying or harassment, and whether classes focused on ethnic studies should be available to students.

School boards have dealt with some of the same issues.

The U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into Granbury ISD last month after officials removed books with LGBTQ themes. Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Texas, have called on the department’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate Frisco and Keller counties.

The group has called for investigations into Keller ISD for its new policy banning gender fluid books and Frisco ISD for its policy limiting bathroom use to facilities that match a person’s biological sex.

Last fall, Grapevine-Colleyville administrators determined that district staff should not discuss sexual orientation or gender identity until a child has completed fifth grade.

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