Louisiana Lawmakers Quietly Advance 2 Controversial Bills

BATON ROUGE (AP) — While state offices and schools were closed across Louisiana on Wednesday because of severe storms, a GOP-controlled legislative committee gathered in the Capitol to debate controversial bills that opponents say target the LGBTQ+ community.

With few members of the public in the audience, an uncommon occurrence when such bills are heard, the House Committee on Education proceeded with business and quietly advanced two bills. One of the pieces of legislation is similar to a Florida law that critics have dubbed as a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which broadly bars teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in public school classrooms. The other measure would require public school teachers to use the pronouns and names that align with the gender students were assigned at birth.

Ahead of the vote to advance the bills, which will be debated on the House floor next, one of the four people present to testify against the measures urged lawmakers to reschedule the meeting or wait to vote after a second hearing.

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“Our concern is that democracy dies in darkness if advocates are not here to express their heartfelt concerns and their personal stories of their children to help educate you on what’s going on with real children and real families in Louisiana,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former Democratic state representative who heads 10,000 Women Louisiana, an advocacy group.

Nearly identical bills were approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature last year. But Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed the bills, stopping the measures from becoming law during his final months in office.

With new GOP Gov. Jeff Landry, who supports the bills, in office, lawmakers are once again considering the legislation.

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During hearings on the bills last year, committee rooms would be filled with dozens of opponents and proponents waiting to testify — with the meetings often lasting hours.

But on Wednesday, most of the seats in the committee room in Baton Rouge were empty, after tornado watches were issued for much of southeast Louisiana. By the afternoon, there was news of flooding, debris blocking roadways and a suspected tornado that injured multiple people and caused significant damage about an 80-minute drive north of the Capitol.

In fact, 12 out of the 14 legislative committees that had meetings scheduled for Wednesday were canceled. Along with the House Education Committee, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee met Wednesday at noon to discuss several election-related bills. In addition, the House still gathered for full-floor debate later in the afternoon.

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State Rep. Laurie Schlegel, the chairman of the Education committee, noted that the two committees both “have a lot of remaining bills left to hear” during the session, which must adjourn no later than the evening of June 3.

In addition, the Republican told the handful of members in the audience and those watching the meeting online, that there would be other chances for people to testify in the process, including in a Senate committee if the bills are approved by the lower chamber.

Of the bills that passed along party-lines in the committee, one was a measure that would not only bar teachers from discussing their own sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 public schools, but would also prohibit discussion of those topics “in a manner that deviates from state content standards or curricula developed or approved by the public school governing authority.”

In addition, the measure prohibits “covering the topics of sexual orientation or gender identity during any extracurricular” activity that is under the jurisdiction of the school.

Under the pronoun-usage bill, teachers would be required to use a student’s name and pronouns that align with their sex assigned at birth.

Republican Rep. Raymond Crews, who authored and pitched the bill as a “parental rights” piece of legislation, noted that a student can receive parental permission to use pronouns that correspond with their gender identity. However, teachers can reject the parent’s choice if it is contrary to the educator’s “religious or moral convictions.”

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