Ohio bill would protect teachers who refuse to support transgender students

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'We have such an issue already with bullying and suicides and passing a law like this just sends a message to some students that it's OK to call out someone for being different,' one expert said.

Ohio Republicans are attempting to make it easier for teachers to take discriminatory stances on transgender issues in the classroom.

An Ohio bill that would ban the teaching of "critical race theory," which examines issues of structural racism, also includes text about transgender and/or nonbinary people. The bill, H.B. 322, introduced on May 25, says teachers can't be required by schools, state agencies, or school administration to "affirm a belief in ... the multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities, or like ideas" if it conflicts with their religious beliefs or philosophical views.

"No teacher shall be required by a policy of any state agency, school district, or school administration to affirm a belief in the systemic nature of racism, or like ideas, or in the multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities, or like ideas, against the teacher's sincerely held religious or philosophical convictions," the bill reads.

It adds that "if a student completes a course that includes any of the concepts described in [the bill], that course shall not count towards the requirements for high school graduation."

Local LGBTQ advocates like Daniel Tirabassi, a transgender man, have since criticized the legislation, with Tirabassi telling WKBN on Thursday that it would have been harmful to him when he was in school.

"The government is giving that to teachers as a kind of 'save yourself' from getting fired for not believing in transgender rights," he told the outlet.

The legislation comes at a particularly fraught time for LGBTQ youth. According to 2019 data released by GLSEN, an organization focused on improving school climates for LGBTQ people, 72% of LGBTQ students in Ohio reported regularly hearing negative remarks about transgender people in school. Sixty-two percent of LGBTQ students said they had been harassed or assaulted in the past year because of their gender expression and 54% experienced the same because of their gender.

State lawmakers have also introduced more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Sixty-nine of those bills prohibited transgender students, mostly transgender girls, from competing on the sports team of their gender.

Republicans have also pushed bills that allow parents to examine school materials on LGBTQ people before they're taught in schools and to opt their children out of those lessons. Republican governors in Montana and Tennessee have already signed two such bills into law this year.

Many of these bills have been pushed by national anti-LGBTQ groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Family Policy Alliance, and Alliance Defending Freedom.

In some cases those groups have jumped in to defend teachers themselves. Tanner Cross, a Virginia elementary school teacher, decided to sue the Loudon County Public School District in early June after he was placed on leave for refusing to use the correct pronouns and names for transgender students, citing his religious beliefs as a Christian.

He was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

On Tuesday, a Loudon County Circuit Court judge said school administrators had violated Cross's free speech and religious freedom rights, mandating that the school district reinstate him to his role as a physical education teacher.

Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, issued a statement after that ruling, saying, "Educators are just like everybody else—they have ideas and opinions that they should be free to express. Advocating for solutions they believe in should not cost them their jobs."

ADF has gone to bat for other teachers in the past. In 2018, the group sent a letter threatening legal action against a school in Indiana after a teacher there, John Kluge, claimed he had essentially been forced to resign from his job after he refused to call transgender students by their first names. Kluge ultimately filed suit against his school district with the help of the ADF-affiliated Indiana Family Institute.

In introducing the Ohio bill, state Republicans are tying together two major themes being pushed by the broader GOP this year: bans on serious discussions of racism in schools and bills focusing on transgender youth and all mentions of transgender people in schools.

Law professors and professors who teach critical race theory told the American Independent Foundation in May that prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, and in doing so, telling Americans that racism should be ignored, is part of a larger political strategy to help Republicans win the 2022 midterms.

Meanwhile, many teachers have expressed support for transgender kids in schools.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, told the American Independent that various anti-trans bills winding through the state legislature are severely detrimental to LGBTQ youth.

"We have such an issue already with bullying and suicides and passing a law like this just sends a message to some students that it's OK to call out someone for being different, that it's OK to treat people differently because they're transgender or different in other ways," Cropper said. "That's not who our educators are."

She cited examples of educators stepping up to help transgender students specifically "fine their path forward," saying that teaching transgender issues in school was part of a larger effort to change the narrative for the better.

"We're trying to create more awareness among students and staff about transgender issues," she said. "So our history has been to try to help students be successful and be safe and be happy while they are going through high school and this bill is the complete opposite of that."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.