Senate votes to restrict school books, teaching related to sex, LGBTQ identities

By: - March 22, 2023 8:46 pm

Books that contain a written or visual depiction of a sex act would not be permitted in school libraries under the bill passed by Senate lawmakers Wednesday. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

The Iowa Senate passed a bill Wednesday restricting books and instruction related to LGBTQ identities in Iowa classrooms and libraries.

Lawmakers changed language in Senate File 496 Wednesday, before passing it 34-16. The amendment to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “parental rights” bill added requirements that school libraries not include materials which depict, visually or textually, any sex act. The final bill also bans instruction and materials related to gender identity and sexual orientation in K-6 classrooms.

The debate came as Reynolds announced she has signed bills banning gender-affirming health care for transgender youth and specifying that people can only use school bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender assigned at birth.

Democrats said the “parental rights” bill is not only another attack against transgender children but that the measures also will further exacerbate the teacher shortage in Iowa. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, citing an Axios report, said school recruiters are facing difficulties getting out-of-state teachers to come to Iowa because of the state’s political climate.

“Republican legislators are fixated on attacking Iowa public teachers in putting them in the impossible position between parents and their kids,” Wahls said. “… You’re continuing to drive down morale for our teaching workforce, which is driving teachers out of teaching and teachers out of Iowa.”

Another provision in the bill requires school staff  to inform administration and parents if they believe a child is transgender. If there is a concern there may be abuse as a result of informing parents, the school is required to report the issue to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, a special education teacher, said the bill could conflict with teachers’ role as a mandatory abuse reporter as well as their role helping students deal with sexual abuse or inappropriate situations they may experience. She said the bill would also prevent LGBTQ teachers and students from discussing their identities in the classroom, she said, citing examples of a family with two fathers or a female teacher who wants to mention her wife.

“You are promoting ignorance and intolerance by, not just the parents, but by the students in the schools that will no longer have information — proper information, factual information — about people who are different than themselves,” Donahue said. “You’re undermining academic freedoms, because this restricts freedoms of educators to teach about important social issues, sexuality, even gender identity.”

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said opponents of the legislation were using “hyperbole, exaggeration, misrepresentations” to criticize the bill. He said the bill’s provisions address a difference in how some teachers and school staff approach education. He quoted a Facebook post by a Linn-Mar Community School Board member who wrote the purpose of public education is “not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know.”

“As long as I’m in this chamber, I will work to rein in those schools that believe the purpose of public education is to teach our children what they think society needs them to know,” Rozenboom said. “We must put parents back in charge of their children’s education.”

The measure comes after lawmakers heard from parents and school officials about challenges to books in Iowa school districts including “The Bluest Eye,” “Gender Queer,” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” for containing sexual themes. Many of the books, which focus on people of color and LGBTQ identities, were kept in school libraries or curriculums after being deemed to have “literary value,” and that the students reading the material were at an age where these topics were relevant and appropriate to consider.

Democrats said the bill could also negatively impact parents with conservative and Christian beliefs. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, cited sections of the Bible that he said could lead to its ban from school libraries for descriptions of sex acts under the bill’s definition.

“If a school board decides to remove the Bible from their library, I guess they could do that,” Rozenboom responded. “Most of us have Bibles at home. But I just would like to remind those school boards that they might have to put up with the wrath of a few parents, if they decided through the provisions of this bill to remove the Bible from their shelves.”

Sen. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said it was hypocritical for Republicans to applaud the private school scholarship law signed in January for expanding “parental rights” while passing education bills and the ban on gender-affirming care that limit parents’ rights on decisions and education relating to their child’s health care. In addition to limiting LGBTQ topics in human growth and development instruction, the bill also strikes requirements that teachers discuss the human papillomavirus and availability of the HPV vaccine, a provision included multiple pieces of legislation discussed this session.

“Republicans throughout the session, and today yet again, make it clear that for them, parent rights are only protected if it fits with their extreme agenda,” Winckler said. “… How low are we going to stoop? I cannot support a piece of legislation that blatantly bullies children and families because they don’t fit your definition.”

Rozenboom said restricting materials youth are given and have access to does not limit parental rights, arguing it increases them. He compared the bill’s provisions to the Motion Picture Association rating system, which informs parents of potentially inappropriate material or subjects that could require parental guidance, with children barred from theaters showing movies with more explicit material.

“I have seen plenty of books in our school libraries that I believe are more explicit and more inappropriate for small children, frankly, than any movie, any movie I’ve ever seen,” Rozenboom said.

The bill moves to the House for consideration.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.