Utah House kills bill banning LGBTQ+ Pride flags and political views from classrooms

FILE - Corbin Aoyagi, a supporter of gay marriage, waves a rainbow flag during a rally at the Utah State Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Utah teachers will be free to display LGBTQ+ pride flags and other social, political or religious imagery after the state House blocked a bill Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, that would have banned teachers from using their position to promote or disparage certain beliefs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah teachers will be free to display LGBTQ+ Pride flags and other social, political or religious imagery after the state House blocked a bill on Monday that would have banned teachers from using their position to promote or disparage certain beliefs.

The Republican-led chamber defeated the proposal in a 39-32 vote as they raced to address hundreds of outstanding bills during the final week of the 2024 legislative session. Both Democrats and Republicans criticized the bill’s vague language and warned that it could stymie important lessons in critical thinking.

Educators would have been prohibited under the bill from encouraging a student to reconsider their sexual orientation or gender, and they could have faced punishment for affirming or refusing to affirm a student’s identity. Challenging a student’s political viewpoints or religious beliefs, even within the context of an educational exercise, also could have left a teacher vulnerable to a lawsuit.

Some teachers pleaded with lawmakers earlier this month to reject the bill, which they said would make them afraid to speak openly in the classroom. But Rep. Jeff Stenquist, a Draper Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor, encouraged educators to view it as a tool to improve trust in the state’s education system.

Although teachers would have to be more careful to filter out their personal beliefs, he said they would have a new resource to ease parents’ worries about what their children are being taught in Utah schools.

“Unfortunately, there is a perception out there that our students are being pushed toward particular ideologies, or religious viewpoints or whatever it might be,” Stenquist said Monday. “And this bill now gives us the ability to say definitively to parents, ‘No. We don’t allow that in the state of Utah.'”

The bill’s unexpected failure on the House floor comes a month after Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation limiting diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the state’s educational institutions.

Already this year, Republican lawmakers in at least 17 states have proposed dozens of bills rolling back diversity efforts in colleges and some K-12 schools. Several of those states are also pushing to ban classroom instruction about LGBTQ+ topics in the early grades and prevent teachers from affirming a child’s gender identity or pronouns.

Utah Education Association Director Sara Jones raised concern that a teacher with a family photo on their desk — one of the few personal displays allowed under the bill — could still be punished if that image included their same-sex partner or showed their family standing outside a place of worship.

In a legislative body overwhelmingly comprised of Latter-day Saints, several raised alarm before the vote that the bill could stifle religious expression.

Local LGBTQ+ rights advocates and other critics celebrated lawmakers’ choice to kill the bill, which the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah had denounced as a vessel for “viewpoint-based censorship.” Utah Republicans this session have passed other legislation, including a transgender bathroom ban, that the ACLU said perpetuates discrimination against trans people.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Salt Lake City Democrat who teaches high school civics and comparative government classes, worried the bill might prevent him from hanging up the flags of other nations or displaying the campaign signs of all candidates running in a state or local race. The policy would have allowed U.S. flags or those of other countries deemed relevant to the curriculum.

He and several legislators argued that the proposal did not adequately define what it means to “promote” a belief. A teacher could face backlash from a parent or student who confuses promoting a point of view with simply explaining a controversial topic or challenging a student to defend their argument, he said.

“I did not find it my job as a teacher to ask my students to think in a certain way,” Briscoe said. “I did believe as a teacher that it was my job to ask my students to think.”