Things got a little testy during a meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee this week.
The point of contention came from a request by state Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, to bring back a bill considered — and failed — during the 2023 session that would have banned public school teachers from teaching sexual orientation and gender identity themes to children ages kindergarten through the third grade.
It also would compel school districts to notify parents immediately of any change in “services or monitoring” related to their students’ mental, emotional or physical health.
Biteman wants to revive Senate File 117 for the Joint Education Committee to consider during its next meeting in August.
He said Legislature’s failure to pass SF 117 was an example of Wyoming lawmakers ignoring the wishes of parents.
“We kicked the can down the road, we need to address it,” he told the committee Wednesday. “If we’re going to address mental health, we need to have the sideboards on it that my constituents want.”
SF 117 passed through the Senate on an 18-12 vote. It died when House Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, refused to pull the Parental Rights In Education Act out of his drawer before the deadline to consider new bills.
Sommers told Cowboy State Daily at the time that the bill would impede local control and may not be constitutional.
Education Committee Co-Chairman Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday he still agrees with Sommers and his decision to kill the bill.
“It’s as unconstitutional as almost any other bill I have had,” he said.
Committee Shouldn’t Debate Social Issues
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, took a different perspective on SF 117, describing it as “two bills in one.” He argued the bulk of SF 117 consisted of “anti-transgender, anti-gender identity and sexual orientation legislation” that would preclude teaching of those subjects to students.
Rothfuss said these topics are national talking points, discussed on cable TV “each and every night … occupying many hours of discourse and discussion at a time when we want to depoliticize our education.”
Rothfuss said if parental rights are the focus of the discussion, he would support honing in on that, but he opposes opening a broader discussion for the interim work of the Education Committee, as he believes it’s outside the body’s scope of work.
“I just don’t want to destroy the Education Committee by bringing national social issues to it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of Wyoming work that’s important for the state of Wyoming that we need to get done.”
Biteman defended the legislation and said the prohibition of the subjects Rothfuss referred to made up about two paragraphs of the nine-page bill.
He said both topics are relevant for discussion and mentioned a proposal made earlier Wednesday to give in-state tuition to non-U.S. citizens as also outside the committee’s list of predetermined interim topics.
“It’s all within the realm of mental health,” Biteman said.
The language of SF 117 mirrored Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act passed last year, which many detractors labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Biteman’s proposal came after hours of mental health discussions before the Education Committee on Wednesday. Some of these discussions referenced the “Miami Model,” a jail diversion program considered the gold standard for diverting people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders away from the criminal justice system.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus thanked Biteman on social media afterward for making his motion.
“After hours of testimony on mental health solutions from Miami, Wyoming parents are demanding solutions to problems occurring right here, right now,” the Caucus said.
Biteman said that parental rights and parents as a whole did not receive enough attention within the mental health discussions.
“If we’re going to go this route, we need to have the parent protection in place,” Biteman said. “What we’re hearing from our constituents is more on the parental rights angle.”
Rothfuss said if both topics are discussed at the committee’s August meeting, “nothing” at that meeting will focus on education.
“I think that would be a poor choice,” he said.
Rep. Martha Lawley, R-Worland, said although she found Rothfuss’ objection to be valid, she supports bringing SF 117 back for the Legislature to consider.
Lawley wants to “augment” the bill with Rock Springs Republican Rep. Clark Stith’s House Bill 78. This parental rights law would add educational institutions to Wyoming’s existing parental-rights statutes and apply it to judges and K-12 schools.
“There’s some overlap, but also some things it would address that would be significant for parents,” she said.
A pair of Rock Springs parents are now suing the Sweetwater County School District #1, alleging the district and staff have helped gender transition their 15-year-old daughter behind their backs.
There were a few other contentious moments during Wednesday’s meeting, many centered on the philosophical split between ultra-conservative and more moderate members of the board about how to effectively handle mental health issues.
The more moderate members tend to favor providing more money for mental health services, while more conservative members believe other societal issues must be addressed.
Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, brought up statistics about Cowboy State youth attempting suicide to further her point that suicide should be a top priority for the August meeting.
“Children cannot learn when they are stressed, they can’t learn when they’re depressed, they can’t learn when they’re suicidal, and they can’t learn when they’re dead,” she said.
The discussion of whether SF 117 will be brought up at the next meeting was never resolved. Northrup said he will need to confer with co-chairman Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, about the matter next week.
If the Education Committee adopts a new version of SF 117, the bill will become sponsored by the committee. Committee bills tend to have a much greater chance of advancing through the Legislature and into law than individually sponsored bills.
Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com