House Passes Bill Giving Wyoming Parents More Power In Courts, Schools

The Wyoming House has passed a bill that would give parents more power over their children, and courts and schools less.

CM
Clair McFarland

February 24, 20244 min read

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A bill expanding parents’ rights in courts and schools cleared the Wyoming House of Representatives in a 55-7 vote Friday and is headed to the state Senate.

House Bill 92, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, has two main components to expand parental rights.

First Off, It Affects Judges

The first expands parents’ rights in state courts so that judges can’t impede a parent’s right to the care, custody and control of her child, except by satisfying the most rigorous judicial standard.

In other words, a judge would not be able to erode a parent’s rights over her child unless he could show that the intervention he’s proposing serves a compelling government interest and is applied in the least restrictive way. That’s a standard the U.S. justice system reserves for its most foundational rights, such as freedom of religion.

This not Stith’s first attempt to place Wyoming’s under the same parental-rights rule the law applies to the other branches of government. He brought earlier versions of the bill in 2022 and 2023, but the House Judiciary Committee voted them down both times.

The bill’s critics at the time said it could decrease courts’ authority to limit visitation and other privileges for abusive parents. 

Because Of Sweetwater

The second part of this year’s version of Stith’s bill is new.

It proposes to expand the fundamental parental rights standard to schools and school boards with respect to how those entities communicate with parents about the parents’ children.

Stith added that second part after reflecting on a parental-rights lawsuit that started in his hometown, he told the House Education Committee on Feb. 16.

Two parents in Rock Springs are suing Sweetwater County School District No. 1 on claims the district required personnel to hide their daughter’s use of a boy name and boy pronouns from them.

A federal judge has since struck that portion of the school’s policy down, saying the school can’t obstruct parents’ rights.

“Had this been a law at that time, at a minimum this would have prevented them from adopting that procedure,” Stith told the House Education Committee when presenting his bill.

The lawsuit is ongoing.

The Abuse Debate

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, proposed an amendment to Stith’s bill Thursday to exempt teachers who believe they’re acting to prevent child abuse.

“Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit a school … to withhold (information from parents) if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse,” said Zwoniter’s amendment.

The House adopted that, but it only survived for a day.

On Friday, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, brought a new amendment — which the House adopted — to delete Zwonitzer’s amendment.

Proponents of keeping Zwonitzer’s amendment on the bill said it would give teachers the flexibility to protect students and would better match other parental-rights legislation. Zwonitzer added that as a foster parent, he's learned parents don't always do what's best for their children.

Opponents of Zwonitzer’s abuse exception said teachers or social workers could use it as a workaround to keep secrets from parents, or some students could claim a potential of abuse merely to get their way. 

The Nays

The seven nay votes on the bill’s third reading came from opposite ends: the social-conservative faction of the Republican party and the entire House Democratic caucus.

The nays were Reps. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie; Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan; Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie; Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie; Liz Storer, D-Jackson; and Mike Yin, D-Jackson.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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CM

Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter