The Kentucky Senate passed a bill Thursday allowing teachers to refuse to refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns — a proposal that was touted as protecting free-speech rights in classrooms but denounced by a lawmaker whose transgender son died recently.
The measure cleared the Senate on a 29-6 vote after the emotional debate, sending the culture war topic to the House. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers. The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Max Wise, is the running mate for gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft. Craft is among a dozen Republicans seeking their party’s nomination in Kentucky’s May primary.
Wise pointed to parts of the bill that he said would empower parents, strengthening their communications with schools regarding health services and school curriculum around sexuality.
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But much of the debate revolved around whether to allow teachers to decide whether to use a student’s preferred pronouns. The bill would prevent policies compelling school staff to use pronouns that don’t conform to a student’s biological sex.
In opposing the bill, Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said referring to children by their preferred pronouns in the classroom is a “simple accommodation.” Transgender advocates warn that the measure would put transgender youths at greater risk of harm.
“What this bill does is it takes the single most important thing that can be done to improve a child’s health and well being and makes it entirely optional,” Berg said during the Senate debate. “There is no religious or ideological conflicts with children being trans.”
Berg’s son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, was a transgender rights advocate who died late last year at age 24. The cause was suicide, his mother said.
In his presentation, Wise said the proposal was intended to “protect the First Amendment freedoms of staff and students as it relates to pronouns.”
“The terms ‘he’ and ‘she’ communicate fixed facts about a person,” Wise said. “And teachers should not be forced to violate their consciences regarding what they know to be true or not true.”
Wise said the measure “does not target or condemn lifestyles.”
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“It does not prevent students from requesting identification by a non-birth-conforming pronoun, nor prevent staff and students from addressing those students with non-conforming pronouns,” he said.
Other Democrats denounced the bill as they watched GOP senators support the measure. Democratic Sen. Denise Harper Angel called it “the meanest piece of legislation” she had seen in her Senate career. Another Senate Democrat, David Yates, said children were being “played as political pawns.”
Other parts of the measure would prohibit education leaders from requiring policies to keep students’ information confidential from their parents. Schools could choose to withhold the information if, based on past conduct, they believe the information would lead to parental abuse.
It also would require that parents be given notice and an opportunity to review materials before human sexuality instruction begins at their children’s school. An alternate assignment would have to be made available for students whose parents disapprove of the instruction.
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The bill is among several being touted by Kentucky GOP lawmakers as ways to bolster parental rights in education. The measures come as GOP candidates for governor compete for support. Craft, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has railed against the state’s education department in campaign speeches, accusing top education leaders of “pushing woke agendas in our schools.” Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is seeking a second term in the GOP-trending Bluegrass State.
Beshear said recently he was “struck by the callousness” of the bill, coming after the death of Berg’s son. The governor also raised concerns that the bill would lead to increased bullying in schools,
“School’s hard and bullying is real,” Beshear said. “We ought to be really thoughtful that we don’t do things that subject our kids – anybody’s kids, no matter who they are — to more bullying.”