Alabama legislature passes surprise ‘Don’t Say Gay’ amendment, transgender bathroom restrictions

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The Alabama legislature passed its own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law Thursday after a surprise amendment to a transgender bathroom bill.

Thursday morning, the last day of the legislative session, Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, introduced an amendment that would prohibit classroom instruction or discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-5.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about homosexuality and gender identity in schools, they should be learning about math,” said Shelnutt of the amendment.

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The amendment’s language mirrors a new Florida law, which applies to K-3 grades. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law, widely called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, last month that said “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The original bill, Alabama’s HB322, sought to require public school students to use restrooms and locker rooms designated for the sex shown on their birth certificates.

The ACLU of Alabama said Thursday that it believes such restrictions are a constitutional violation.

“By singling out transgender students for discrimination and excluding them from restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, HB 322 discriminates based on transgender status and sex in violation of the United States Constitution and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act,” said Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama in a statement.

The Senate cut off debate on the amendment after several minutes of complaints from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who asked the bill’s sponsor if it’s allowed for “little Johnny” to ask a teacher if he’s a boy or a girl.

“Little Johnny, you’re a boy,” Shelnutt responded.

“You just answered the question based on gender,” Singleton responded.

The bill passed the Senate as amended by a vote of 25-5 and moved to the House in the evening where Democratic representatives aired their disappointment with the legislation.

“We’re turning into bullies to these kids and it’s not a good feeling,” said Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D- Mobile.

Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, the only openly gay lawmaker in the state House, challenged the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R- Hartselle, on what the amendment was seeking to address.

“You’re not even explaining how this is a problem or how this is addressing a problem. You’re just putting this in there to add more…cheap political points,” Rafferty said.

The House overwhelmingly passed the bill by a vote of 70-26, moving the legislation to Governor Ivey’s desk for a final signature.

It is not clear what impact the legislation might immediately have on classroom instruction.

“The amendment, while unnecessary, is unlikely to have any impact since sexual orientation and gender identity is not taught in Alabama public schools and the topic would generally not be age appropriate for classroom discussion at these grade levels. However, we are concerned that this amendment could make it even more difficult for school faculty to create safe environments for some students and families,” said Sally Smith, executive director of Alabama Association of School Boards.

The bathroom bill would be one of only three passed in the country, although only Tennessee’s is currently active. North Carolina passed a bill in 2016, but repealed it less than a year after estimates the legislation would cost the state billions of dollars in economic losses.

Only Florida currently has similar legislation limiting the classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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The legislature also passed a bill today that would criminalize the provision of gender-affirming care to minors by penalizing anyone who prescribes or administers treatments to change a minor’s gender by a 10-year prison sentence or a fine of up to $15,000. Banned treatments include puberty blockers, which are currently prescribed to some children, and gender-affirming surgery, which medical experts say are not performed on children in the state.

If signed by Ivey, the law would also require teachers, school nurses, counselors and administrators to report to a student’s parent or guardian any information related to a student questioning their gender identity.

Ivey did not respond to questions regarding whether she will sign these bills. Last year she signed a law restricting transgender students from participating in K-12 sports.

Savannah Tryens-Fernandes is a member of The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com. She is supported through a partnership with Report for America. Learn more here and contribute to support the team here.

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