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Gordon doesn’t sign ‘parental rights’ bill, calling it unnecessary, dangerous

‘I struggle to see what additional value this bill brings for an individual parent and their child,’ governor writes, noting that federal law already provides the protections.

Gov. Mark Gordon at the beginning of the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

In his first such boycott of the 2024 legislative session, Gov. Mark Gordon let a “parental rights” bill go into law without his signature, noting in an accompanying letter that he can’t see a need for it. 

Considering that Wyoming law “is clear in stating ‘the liberty of a parent to the care, custody and control of their child is a fundamental right that resides first in the parent,’ I struggle to see what additional value this bill brings for an individual parent and their child,” Gordon wrote of Senate File 9 – Parental rights in education-1.

The bill also has the potential to let state oversight infringe on local control, Gordon wrote, and could have harmful unintended consequences.

“Rather than confirming a parent’s right and ability to guide the fortunes of their children; this law may actually enable the specter of a self-appointed group to exercise the very same sort of doctrinaire interference that this bill is ostensibly supposed to defeat,” he wrote. 

The main thrust of the measure is to require school districts to share with parents and guardians information regarding their children, including “a change in the student’s physical, mental or emotional health or well-being.” That includes sexuality and gender. 

By omitting his signature, Gordon allows the legislation to be enacted into law without his express support. Though problematic, he wrote, the act is within the Legislature’s constitutional powers. 

A 2024 trend 

The bill is among several pieces of 2024 legislation aimed at addressing “parental rights” and reflects a growing conservative movement to give parents more oversight, specifically of schools. Other parental rights measures addressed health care of minors and vaccination. They emerged amid growing skepticism nationally among conservatives toward things like public education, teachers and library book collections.

Senate File 9 emerged from interim work in the Joint Education Committee. A former version of the bill contained controversial language barring school districts from permitting classroom instruction by teachers or any other person on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or in a manner that is not age appropriate. Following hours of public testimony, the committee voted narrowly to ax that language. 

What remained were requirements of districts to provide parents and guardians with information about their children, including regarding their health or well-being. 

It also calls on districts to adopt procedures for parents to file complaints regarding noncompliance and request hearings before the school board. And it requires them to obtain written or electronic permission from students’ parents or guardians in order to participate or receive instruction in any trainings or classes that address sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jackson Hole High School students in one of two lunch shifts line up for pizza, a treat on Fridays. (Angus M. Thuermer,Jr.) Credit: Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

As the measure worked through the chambers, educators and lawmakers made the argument that the bill is redundant because federal laws already exist that provide proper safeguards. 

“I would caution the committee to get crosswise with some of those other laws, because it would put the districts in a rough spot,” Boyd Brown of the Wyoming School Boards Association told the House Education Committee during discussion on the bill. 

Gordon stressed that point in his letter, citing the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act and the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment. “These laws are not inconsequential,” he said. 

When reviewing the bill and considering it “alongside existing established laws that already protect the rights of parents, I have to question if this law is really necessary at this time,” he wrote.  

Gordon added that as a parent of four children and a former Wyoming school board member, he supports locally elected boards. “This local control approach should continue, it allows schools to respect and value parental input while also fostering productive conversations. 

“I am concerned that this act may lead to unintended consequences and place restrictions on school districts impeding their ability to effectively manage educational processes in our public schools,” Gordon continued.

Other concerns, questions

Many educators and school nurses raised concerns about the bill interfering with critical health care responses, such as when a student athlete is injured on the field. 

One teacher told the education committee she is concerned about her right to talk to students about sensitive issues like gender identity struggles. 

“My worry with this is … counselors have to break patient confidentiality and report to parents” things students may want to keep private, said teacher Lindsay Adam from Sublette County. 

The ACLU of Wyoming went further. The legislation requires schools to “out” gay, transgender or gender-nonconforming youth to their parents, the organization said in a statement. 

“While parents in Wyoming have a constitutional right to make decisions about their children’s education — like whether to send their kids to public or private school — Senate File 9 has nothing to do with these protected parental rights,” the group’s Advocacy Director Antonio Serrano said in a statement. “This bill disguises discrimination as parental rights, enabling politicians to require the forced outing of trans and nonbinary students.”

Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland) during the 2024 Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Continuing to undermine teachers is unwise, Wyoming Equality Executive Director Sara Burlingame told WyoFile. “They have said very clearly that the persistent government overreach is making it harder and harder to teach in Wyoming.” 

Others, meanwhile, said the measure protects fundamental rights.  

“I believe that the whole point of this particular bill is to help school districts navigate what it looks like to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s decision that parents have a 14th Amendment constitutional right to direct the education of their children,” Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland) said. 

Nathan Winters, president of the Christian advocacy organization Wyoming Family Alliance, testified the measure “ensures that parents are not cut out of the equation in regards to their children.” His organization opposes same-sex marriage and rejection of one’s biological sex. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.