Montana is sued over parental notification law - TAI News
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Demonstrators gather on the step of the Montana State Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation on Monday, March 15, 2021, in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

A group of parents and educators in Montana has filed a lawsuit challenging a 2021 law that mandates K-12 schools notify parents before conducting any “events or courses on human sexuality” and gives parents the right to opt their children out of such events or courses.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed the lawsuit April 9 in Lewis and Clark County District Court on behalf of the group of students, educators and school counselors associations. The lawsuit names the state of Montana; in their official capacities, Gov. Greg Gianforte, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen; the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Board of Education as defendants.

The law targeted by the lawsuit, Senate Bill 99, requires no less than two days’ advance notice before events relating to human sexuality are held or materials concerning the topic are introduced.

The law, however, defines human sexuality quite broadly: “For purposes of this section, ‘human sexuality instruction’ means teaching or otherwise providing information about human sexuality, including intimate relationships, human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, sexual acts, sexual orientation, gender identity, abstinence, contraception, or reproductive rights and responsibilities.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim S.B. 99 violates numerous provisions of Montana’s Constitution, including the rights to due process, free speech, privacy and educational opportunity. They argue that the law, despite being described as protecting parents’ rights, is actually part of a “concerted effort” to create a climate of hostility toward LGBTQ+ people, and to erase their history and viewpoints.

The ACLU also says that because the law is so vaguely written, it’s difficult or impossible for educators to even follow it, effectively discouraging classroom discussion and encouraging teachers to self-censor.

“I think the important thing to remember is, what people are actually experiencing with the law is so far beyond just the way it was branded,” Marthe VanSickle, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Montana, told the Montana Independent in a phone call. “It’s actually harming conversation in the classroom. At the heart of the law, it’s a censorship law.”

The lawsuit says the law is so unclear that school counselors might feel unable to discuss topics that could be construed as pertaining to human sexuality when brought up by students.

“Students need to be able to go to school counselors and psychologists without that information being shared with their parents and with others,” VanSickle said. “Counselors shouldn’t have to disclose that information to anyone. It violates their ethical and professional responsibilities. Counselors and psychologists are having to choose between what they are already obligated to do and the law.”

The suit says the law has “already been weaponized” to discipline educators. It cites the case of one school librarian in central Montana who it says was accused of “grooming” and was subjected to a “draconian performance improvement plan” after teaching students the history and meaning of Pride month. The librarian eventually resigned, the lawsuit says.

“It really feels like the goal of SB 99 is to silence people,” said Eva Stahl, a Montana student and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, in the ACLU’s press release. “Teachers are changing how they teach and making it harder for students to access books. I even had one teacher say they were worried about the possible ‘employment consequences’ of openly supporting 2S-LGBTQIA+ students. This law doesn’t protect students, it just makes our lives harder and our schools worse.”

A Yellowstone County teacher who is another plaintiff in the lawsuit said that in one case, a student spent weeks in the library without any English instruction after his parents not only objected to him reading a book with a nonbinary protagonist, but also did not allow him to read an alternative text.

“This is the type of education that SB 99 imposes on Montana students,” said the teacher, Daniel Johnson.

Another plaintiff, Billings West High School teacher-librarian Libby Threadgoode, said at the end of the day, it’s clear that the law places a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ students.

“Students attending a school’s Genders and Sexualities Alliance are no longer allowed to have spontaneous, free flowing conversations,” Threadgoode said in the ACLU statement. “It’s all a textbook example of a chilling effect, and I have to believe it’s intentional.”

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