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Utah Bill Would Require Teachers to Be Politically ‘Neutral’ In Class

HB303 advances to Utah House despite concerns about chilling effects on teachers, classroom ‘sterilization,’ and restrictions on LGBTQ+ symbols.

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It started as what critics call a “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year, but has since evolved into broader legislation to control what teachers can and can’t say — or display — in their classrooms.

With HB303, Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, wants to ban teachers from “endorsing, promoting or disparaging” certain beliefs or viewpoints, including religious or political beliefs and sexual orientation or gender identity.

Stenquist started working on the bill about a year ago, after some parents expressed concerns about a teacher talking about pronouns and gender identity with young students.

HB303 would restrict teachers from having those discussions unless they’re germane to the curriculum, and would require teachers to tread carefully as to not sway a student to change their beliefs. It would also effectively restrict the display of Pride flags or other symbols that could be interpreted as a “political” or “social” belief unless they’re relevant to the curriculum.

Stenquist said he’s trying to address a “perception problem” with teachers and “get political and ideological fights … out of the classroom.” He said his goal is to “reassure parents that students are not being exposed to some political or ideological ideal that they may not agree with,” regardless of political or social leanings.

But the bill’s opponents — including the Utah Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah — argue it’s too vague and would create a “chilling effect” on teachers, leaving them at risk over what they can or can’t say to their students without punishment.

Despite those concerns, the bill narrowly cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday. It advanced out of the House Education Committee with a split, 6-5 vote. Its next stop: the House floor.

What does the bill do?

HB303 would prohibit school employees or officials from using their position, “through instruction, materials or a display of symbols, images or language” to support, promote or criticize certain beliefs. It also bans them from inviting, suggesting or encouraging students to “reconsider or change” the students’ beliefs.

Those beliefs, as listed in the bill, include:

  • Religious, denominational, sectarian, agnostic, or atheistic beliefs or viewpoints
  • Political or social beliefs or viewpoints
  • Viewpoints regarding sexual orientation or gender identity

The bill would, however, allow teachers to wear religious clothing, including jewelry such as a rosary, or other “accessories that are central to the individual’s sincerely held religious belief.” It would also allow them to display “personal photographs” of their family members.

It would also allow teachers to discuss “an age-appropriate topic” or display an “age-appropriate image or symbol” as long as it’s part of an approved curriculum.

Stenquist said the bill would require Utah school districts to implement a more “standardized policy around neutrality” across the state.

The debate

While drafting the bill, Stenquist worked with Megan Kallas, a parent and one of Stenquist’s constituents, who came to him to prevent “inappropriate conversations” that she said her first grade daughter’s teacher was having with some students outside of curriculum dealing with topics of gender identity, gender fluidity and pronouns.

Frustrated that school and district officials didn’t address the issue because there was no “policy on the books to say this is inappropriate,” Kallas said she turned to Stenquist. Since then, she said he’s crafted a bill to implement a “fair and neutral policy that protects all students and creates in the classroom an environment of learning versus an environment of ideologies being passed around from teacher to student without parental consent.”

Kallas and other supporters told the committee HB303 is aimed at ensuring teacher “professionalism” and fostering a learning environment free from political pressures or ideologies.

But Sara Jones, director of government relations for the Utah Education Association, a union that lobbies on behalf of teachers, urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, expressing concerns about ambiguous language.

For example, Jones noted the bill’s language allows teachers to display personal photographs in their classrooms or offices.

“But can those photographs include a family standing in front of a place of worship, or a family member holding a sign at a rally at the Capitol, or a same-sex couple holding a Pride flag, or would those types of personal photographs actually be interpreted as promoting religious, political (beliefs) or sexual orientation?” she questioned.

Jones also wondered how teachers are supposed to avoid “inviting” a student to change their political viewpoints while teaching topics such as U.S. government or history. “It implies classroom instruction, which includes careful analysis, discussion, deliberation of facts, should never include a student then considering how that information might change their viewpoint or their opinion,” she said.

“Ambiguous language is a hazard for educators who won’t know how the statute applies to them, and may end up facing disciplinary or licensure actions,” Jones said.

Two students spoke in favor of the bill. One from Springville High School said she believes there shouldn’t be “gay pride” flags in the classroom, and that some of her teachers have “placed biases into what they’ve been teaching.”

“When I go to school, I want to be able to be taught how to think and not what to think,” she said.

Another student, from Maple Mountain High School, also spoke against allowing “symbols” she didn’t agree with in classrooms and “teachers that would tell us things that I didn’t want to believe in, but I felt that if I disagreed I wasn’t welcome.”

“School needs to be a place of learning and it needs to be a safe place and it was not that for me,” she said. “We need to prevent different beliefs from making other people uncomfortable.”

Representatives for conservative groups including Utah Parents United spoke in favor of the bill, arguing it would ensure “balanced, unbiased and neutral content” in classrooms.

But Zee Kilpack, who identified themself as a transgender person, spoke against the bill, arguing it discourages the mere discussion of the existence of LGBTQ+ people, who’ve historically had a hard enough time feeling welcome.

“Obviously, we live in Utah. We live in a place where a lot of parents don’t support LGBTQ+ ideology. And yet, queer kids exist anyway,” they said. “School was one of the few places where I could see people that were queer.”

Kilpack also argued HB303 would not “prepare kids for the future,” from colleges to workplaces “that will have all of these ideologies expressed.” They also worried it would restrict LGBTQ+ teachers from posting pictures with their partners, “where that can be a nonpolitical statement of them just existing.”

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, asked Stenquist if the bill would “cause teachers to feel like they’re monitored so much that they can’t say anything anymore.” Stenquist acknowledged “this will be somewhat of a paradigm shift for some teachers,” but only those that “may feel like part of their job is to endorse some particular worldview.”

“But I think the vast majority of teachers will probably not be affected by this,” Stenquist said, describing the “best teachers” as those that “students don’t know what their political viewpoints are. And I think that’s the goal that we need to get to.”

To questions about how to define a “social belief” or concerns that the bill’s language is too vague, Stenquist said it’s difficult to define “neutrality” in state code, but he welcomed anyone to offer “better language” to make it clearer than the current bill. It may not be “perfect,” he said, but he urged lawmakers not to “make perfect the enemy of good.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who has worked as an educator, argued against the bill, worried it will especially impact teachers of history, social studies, literature and other subjects that can cover controversial topics. She said it suggests “teachers aren’t trained and aren’t professional enough,” while there are already school policies and procedures in place that address unprofessionalism.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, vehemently argued in favor of the bill, saying it doesn’t “target” any single group.

“I get really tired of hearing that we’re targeting people,” said Birkeland, who this year sponsored a controversial bill to restrict transgender access in government-owned bathrooms and other facilities while also expanding unisex and single stall facilities. “We try to show kindness and compassion and then we’re told, ‘But you’re rejecting them.’ We’re not.”

Birkeland said the “majority of people do not care who you love, they want to let you love who you love and be who you are. But when we try to run bills to create balance, and the first thing we throw out is, ‘This targets one community,’ we send a message to these kids that they’re being targeted, and they’re not.”

“We want everyone — everyone — to walk in that class and feel like they belong, and that has to do with coming in and being spoken to with respect and dignity,” Birkeland said. “That’s why this bill’s before us, so that every kid — no matter their identity, no matter their beliefs — walks in and knows that they are respected, and will be treated with dignity.”

But one of Birkeland’s Republican colleagues, Rep. Neil Water, R-St. George, opposed the bill, saying he’s worried about its unintended consequences — along with legislation the Utah Legislature has already passed this year to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public entities.

“I’m concerned about sterilizing our classrooms,” he said.

House Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, also supported the bill, first thanking students who spoke in support of the bill. “They showed bravery in an increasingly political school environment.”

“This bill refocuses our classrooms to basic academic learning and provides a professionalism standard that will support all students,” Lisonbee said. “It is vital that we provide these standards and the expectation of learning and exploring different ideas in a neutral environment.”

Utahn Jacob Hancey spoke against the bill, arguing against restricting teachers from expressing their viewpoints to help foster realistic, healthy debates.

Hancey said he “never saw eye-to-eye on anything political” with one of his high school teachers, “but our discussions were wonderful. We became friends until the day he died.”

“Every day we’d have arguments … I learned so much more from him and the respect that he showed me by giving me this chance to form my opinions and really refine them,” Hancey said, urging lawmakers not to support the bill.

“Because I think those conflicts are a chance for students to grow.”

Utah News Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Utah News Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor McKenzie Romero for questions: info@utahnewsdispatch.com. Follow Utah News Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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