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Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature passed bills it says are about individual freedoms. Several are likely to be challenged in court

Gov. DeSantis speaks at a podium. Supporters stand behind him.
Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act on Dec. 15, 2021.

A number of high-profile bills await Gov. DeSantis’s signature — bills that govern teaching about sexual orientation in schools, how companies conduct training around racial issues at work, and that give parents more control over school books.

It took one extra day for state lawmakers to do the one thing they have to do each year — pass a state budget. In the previous 60 days of the law-writing session, they were instead busy with a number of other items, mostly focused on Gov. Ron DeSantis’s legislative social agenda.

There’s the new bill that bans classroom instruction in gender identity and sexual orientation if it’s not considered “age appropriate."

There’s a bill that regulates how race-related subjects are taught in public schools. It bans classroom lessons that instruct a student to feel anguish or guilt for something in the past. This same bill applies to employee training programs.

Another bill gives parents more control of what books are in schools.

Republican supporters have framed these issues around boosting individual freedoms. Opponents criticize them as unnecessary, uncivil and perhaps, unconstitutional.

The governor identified very early that this was a year where people were very frustrated, especially parents, with the restrictions.
Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas

"I think the governor was enormously successful" in getting his agenda passed, said Miami Herald Capital Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas. "The governor identified very early that this was a year where people were very frustrated, especially parents, with the restrictions imposed by school boards during the COVID pandemic. It really made it difficult for them to feel as if their kids were getting the best education. So they found a way to frame a lot of these culture war issues as parental rights issues."

For example, House Bill 1557 carries the official title "Parental Rights in Education." Opponents dubbed it the "Don't Say Gay Bill." HB 7 is titled "Individual Freedom." But the legislation is better know as the Stop WOKE Act that Gov. DeSantis began pushing for late last year.

This was a lot of energy and a lot of time spent on these issues that are important to the Republican base.
Politico Reporter Gary Fineout

Usually even-year Legislative sessions tend to concentrate on less divisive issues because they are election year law-writing sessions. "A lot of times there's not a lot of contentiousness that's done in the election year session," said Politico Reporter Gary Fineout. "This was completely different. This was a lot of energy and a lot of time spent on these issues that are important to the Republican base."

Much of this package of social legislation is expected to be challenged in court. Law360 Reporter Carolina Bolado expects suits to be filed in federal court where they would eventually find their way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is seen as a conservative federal bench.

"It's going to be a bit difficult because there are some potential constitutional problems with, particularly, the Don't Say Gay and Stop WOKE bills. That's largely because both of these play out in a school environment where the government actually has a lot of latitude to regulate speech and control curriculum," Bolado said.

The legal challenges may be based on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, according to Bolado's reporting. "The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (One can) make an argument that the Don't Say Gay bill singles out a group, in this case LGBTQ students or teachers or students who have gay parents, for example. You're not allowing them to have the same conversations that others might be able to have."

This specific legislation does not use the word 'gay' in the text of the bill. It prohibits teachers from leading a class discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. For older grades, the bill bans similar instruction that is "in a manner that is not age-appropriate" for students.

The tone for the session was set in January with the governor's State of the State address. He referred to the state as "the free state of Florida" while trumpeting how Florida reopened well before almost any other state after the economic restrictions that were put in place in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the virus remains, COVID-19 did not play much of a role during the Legislative session in terms of policy. "I think it did come in the form of the backlash that we heard from people who who no longer want any restrictions," said Klas.

The pandemic is present in the $112 billion state budget okayed by lawmakers on Monday. Federal COVID relief dollars boosted the budget by about $3.5 billion. That helped fuel 10 percent growth year-over-year in state spending.

Almost $9 billion will be set aside for Florida's "rainy day" fund, pushing state reserves to record levels. "They've never been this flush," said Fineout.

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.