RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A bill advancing in North Carolina's Senate would prohibit instruction about sexuality and gender identity in K-4 public school classes, defying the recommendations of parents, educators and LGBTQ youths who testified against it.
Sponsors of the bill, approved Wednesday by the Senate education committee, say they want to grant parents greater authority over their children’s education and health care. In addition to making classroom reading materials available for parental review, the bill would require schools to alert parents, in most circumstances, prior to a change in the name or pronouns used for their child. It also instructs schools to inform parents of any discernible changes to a child's mental well-being.
Critics of the measure have equated it to the Florida law that opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay" and warned that it could harm LGBTQ or questioning youths who have unsupportive families. But bill sponsor Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican and education committee co-chair, said that without it, teachers can “shove parents out of the school door” and teach curriculum that conflicts with parents’ beliefs.
“It baffles me to think that this bill would be divisive, quite frankly,” Galey told the committee Wednesday. “I cannot understand why it would be controversial to say that children 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, should not be taught about sexuality or sexual activity in public school classrooms — that blows my mind.”
A version of the bill passed the state Senate last year but did not get a vote in the House. The current bill raises the curriculum restriction to fourth grade, up from third grade in the previous version. Galey said the change was made because health classes begin around fifth grade.
The bill now heads to the Senate health care committee. Prospects for passage this year have improved as Republicans increased their margins in the November elections, falling just one seat short of a veto-proof supermajority on the House side.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said the legislature's past actions regarding the LGBTQ community demonstrate how much harm a bill like this could cause. He had signaled last year that he likely would have vetoed the 2022 bill had it reached its desk, linking it to the Florida law.
“Parents are critical to the success of our schools, and their participation should be welcomed and encouraged, but the last thing we need is to force the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ culture wars on our children and our state," Cooper said in a statement Wednesday.
House Speaker Tim Moore pointed last session to the political dynamics in the legislature as to why the bill didn’t get heard in 2022. There were enough Democrats in the House so that they could have upheld a Cooper veto if they remained united.
Moore has said he anticipates some Democrats will join the GOP at times to complete veto overrides this session, but he hasn’t identified the topics on which they could. Republicans would likely need some Democratic support to push through the measure.
Galey told reporters she was open-minded about negotiating with Democrats but would need to hear an extremely persuasive reason to change the K-4 restriction.
Still, Moore suggested in June that a wide-ranging measure may not be needed. He pointed to laws already on the books about the discussion of sex-related topics in early grades.
Lawmakers in at least 23 other states are currently considering similar bills, constitutional amendments or both. The states include many with Republican leadership and some liberal strongholds such as Oregon and Massachusetts, where the measures are unlikely to go far.
The curriculum restriction outlined in North Carolina's bill would apply to standard course material, including textbooks, supplemental readings and information provided by third parties, but “does not include responses to student-initiated questions.”
Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and education committee co-chair, told reporters the bill is not meant to stifle classroom discussion or place a greater strain on educators.
Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County and Natalie Murdock of Durham County, said they were disappointed that this was the first bill on the committee's agenda instead of a more pressing matter, like teacher shortages.
Jack Turnwald, a parent and former educator who left teaching due to their own experiences with anti-LGBTQ discrimination, said at the hearing that the bill would silence queer youth under the guise of parental rights.
"I watched unsupported queer youth suffer due to a lack of education all around about who they are and how they can be supported in our schools," said Turnwald, who is transgender and nonbinary. “It is unsafe at present to be a trans educator or student in a hostile state like ours.”
They warned the provision alerting parents of name or pronoun changes would forcibly out gender-nonconforming students before they’re ready and could contribute to the heightened risk of suicide for LGBTQ youths.
“You don't have to love us,” said Brenda Dimas, a gay North Carolinian who testified at the hearing. “But your job requires you to protect and serve all your constituents, even the gay ones.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter @H_Schoenbaum.
Associated Press writers Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh and Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.