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Indiana's 'Don’t Say Gay' bill expanded in committee – includes religious protections, nicknames

A reverend stands behind a microphone to speak at a legislative hearing.
Violet Comber-Wilen
IPB News
LGBTQ advocates, like Rev. Chad Abbott, testified against a controversial bill passed out of a Senate committee Wednesday that requires teachers to notify parents if students request a name, title or pronoun change in the classroom.

House Bill 1608, which passed through the full House last month, has been amended to include changes related to religious protections for teachers, limits on discussions of LGBTQ identities and expression in the classroom, and limits on sexual education for young students.

Republican lawmakers passed a controversial bill out of a Senate committee Wednesday that requires teachers to notify parents if students request a name, title or pronoun change in the classroom. The amended legislation also addresses other issues under the banner of “parents rights."

The amendment and changes to House Bill 1608, which passed through the full House last month, encompassed a wide variety of issues – including religious protections for teachers, limits on discussions of LGBTQ identities and expression in the classroom, and limits on sexual education for young students.

Limits on LGBTQ identity discussions and expression

The version of the bill that passed out of the full House included provisions that would require teachers and school staff to notify parents if students request to be called by a different name, pronoun or title that is “inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth.”

A new amendment changed this provision – removing the part of this amendment that says the name, pronoun or title must be “inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth.”

This means that students who want to shorten their legal name or go by nicknames must also receive parental consent to be referred to these updated names, pronouns or titles in the classroom.

Many that testified expressed confusion about this change.

“I want the best for my children, but transness and queerness is not something to be protected from,” said Quinn Mackenzie, a Hoosier testifying against the bill.

Others testifying against the bill echoed this, and said this may lead to discrimination of LGBTQ children. The 2021 GLSEN School Climate Survey reported that 81.8% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe in their classrooms. And in Indiana, GLSEN’s survey reported 69% of LGBTQ students experienced discrimination at school.

The Rev. Chad Abbott is the conference minister of the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the United Church of Christ. He said these provisions can make LBGTQ children feel that they are not well represented.

“I believe it does not allow for human flourishing by seeking to either erase or diminish the lived experiences and stories of children whose sexuality differs in any way,” he said.

Others cited high suicide rates among transgender youth and already polarizing environments for those involved.

Limited discussions of sexual education, 'human sexuality'

The initial version of the bill said it would prohibit instruction to students in kindergarten through third grade about “human sexuality.” The amended version extends this to prekindergarten.

Sex education is not required in Indiana schools for any grade level. If it is taught, state law requires sex educators to emphasize that abstinence is the expected standard for students.

The broad term was a change from the initial bill language, which specified things such as gender roles and gender identity. Bill author, Rep. Michelle Davis, a Republican from Whiteland, clarified the definition of human sexuality in her testimony.

“Human sexuality is just the way people experience and express themselves sexually,” she said.

While discussing the amended bill with the committee, Davis said this bill is imperative to supporting parental rights.

“By allowing our schools to instruct our young elementary-aged students in human sexuality, and allowing students to decide on different identities without their parent's knowledge and consent creates an acceptable intrusion into the parent-child relationship,” she said.

She said constituents in her district felt children had been sexualized by teachers there and that she feels discussions about sexuality at a young age are “inappropriate.”

Sen. Andrea Hunley, a Democrat from Indianapolis, challenged this definition and said it could be confusing to determine what can and cannot be discussed in the classroom. She used a fairytale children’s book as an example, where a knight proposes to a prince rather than a princess.

“It's a fairy tale, you know, but would that be allowed?” Hunley said. “Would that be considered instruction? Because it could happen during a read-aloud during classroom time, would that be considered instruction on human sexuality?”

Those testifying agreed and said this definition still makes it unclear what teachers can and cannot talk about.

Melanie Davis is a transgender single mom to a bisexual child.

“The definition of what instruction on human sexuality means is left vague and wide open,” she said.

The bill does permit teachers to answer direct questions from students about human sexuality. However, they are prohibited from explicitly discussing these subjects with students without being prompted.

READ MORE: House committee approves gender-affirming care ban for transgender youth

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues throughout the legislative session. And follow along with our bill tracker.

Religious protections for teachers 

A real-time tweak to the amendment during this hearing – which is unusual – also said teachers would not be penalized if they refuse to use a child’s requested name or pronoun inconsistent with their legal name if this was done so out of religious conviction.

There is an ongoing court case over this precise issue.

John Kluge lost his job in Brownsburg Community Schools after he refused to comply with the district's policy which allowed students to change names and pronouns with the approval of a parent and a health care professional.

Kluge is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom – a recognized hate group that has advocated for the forced sterilization of transgender Europeans.

The ADF has testified in favor of all of Indiana's anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Several senators, including Sen. Shelli Yoder, a Democrat from Bloomington, said this could also apply to those whose faith may encourage changed names or pronouns.

“I have a deeply held religious conviction to see children in their full humanity,” she said.

The initial change called for a “genuine religious conviction” to allow teachers to not use changed names or pronouns if it goes against their faith.

However, Yoder expressed concerns about how “genuine” would be evaluated – whether that be how many times someone goes to church or whether they do certain religious tasks.

Sen. Stacy Donato, a Republican from Logansport, was the Senate sponsor for this bill. She said she could not answer that.

Senate education committee chairman Sen. Jeff Raatz, a Republican from Richmond, suggested taking out the word “genuine,” which Donato agreed with.

Other parts of the amendment 

The amendment also sets a five-day timeline for schools to notify at least one parent if a student requests to change their name, pronoun, title or word to identify themselves.

The bill also reinforces that certain support staff – including school psychologists, school nurses, school social workers, or school counselors are not required to violate federal law or regulation to fit within the guidelines of this state law.

The bill passed out of the Senate education committee in a party-line vote of 9-4 and now heads to the full Senate.

Violet is IPB's daily news reporter. Contact her at vcomberwilen@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @ComberWilen.
Copyright 2023 IPB News.

Violet Comber-Wilen

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