Bills restricting race, gender lessons face new challenges

Legislation that would restrict gender identity and race discussions in public schools and colleges is facing headwinds as they multiply among the states, according to a new report.

The free speech advocacy group PEN America reports that 36 states have introduced 137 “divisive concepts” bills this year — a 250% increase over the 54 bills lawmakers filed in 22 states last year.

But only seven of the bills have become law: Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and two in Florida. That’s down from 12 last year.

“The lowest of the low-hanging fruit was plucked last year in the states where the bills had the most support and faced the fewest procedural hurdles,” said Jeremy C. Young, PEN America’s director of free expression. “The landscape of some of the remaining states requires more effort.”

In Kentucky, the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode the veto of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to restrict race discussions in K-12 history classrooms — one of several places the bills have faced a steeper climb this year.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, calls the bills “cancel culture on steroids.”

“Anyone who cares about free expression in the United States should be appalled by them,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have not introduced similar legislation this year. They include California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont — all states where Democrats control the legislatures.

Other states enacted a law last year or do not have legislative sessions this year: Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

Political scientist Robert Weissberg, a retired professor at the University of Illinois, says the bills strike a chord with voters worried about public schools teaching a “woke” agenda.

“They want toddlers learning about gay sex and when states ban such teaching, as they have done forever, this is called censorship,” Mr. Weissberg said. “It’s another example of how the left twists language to advance their agenda.”

As the bills have multiplied, so have the legal challenges against them.

Last Thursday, a group of students and teachers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union sued to overturn Florida’s ban on teaching and discussing critical race theory in classrooms.

The ACLU alleges that the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (Stop W.O.K.E.) Act is “censorship” that discriminates against teachers’ and students’ First Amendments right to free expression. It took effect in July.

Critical race theory is an analytical tool based on Marxist critical theory. Developed in graduate and law schools in the 1970s, it presents racism as a foundational element of American society and government.

The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits to overturn divisive concepts laws in Oklahoma and New Hampshire.

Several LGBTQ advocacy groups have sued to block Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which bans age-inappropriate gender identity and sexuality lessons from K-3 classrooms.

According to PEN America’s report, 23 of this year’s bills focus on LGBTQ classroom discussions, compared to only five last year. The bills also feature stronger financial and criminal penalties for teachers who violate them than last year’s legislation provided.

In Missouri alone, the group found lawmakers have proposed 21 separate bills this year.

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