By April L. Bogle
Experts on some of Florida’s most contentious public policy issues – abortion rights, LGBTQ equality, voter suppression and quality public education – explained how a slate of bills passed in the 2023 session of the Florida Legislature, many of which go into effect today, continue stripping away basic personal freedoms and rights under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The laws run counter to DeSantis’ 2022 gubernatorial race slogan “Keep Florida Free” and his presidential campaign slogan “Freedom Lives Here.”
“I have folks telling me they’re leaving the state because they fear for their lives. And they fear for their lives because the party in power is playing games,” said State Representative Angie Nixon (D-District 13/Jacksonville) at a legislative forum organized by the Democratic Club of Amelia Island (DCAI) at the Amelia Community Theater June 26.
“It’s really important that we let everyone know there’s an attack on our freedoms here in the State of Florida. They’re saying that this is the free State of Florida, but free for who?” Nixon said. “Having spoken with my previous boss and mentor Mia Jones (former State Representative for District 14), this was the worst legislative session she has seen. Ever. Ever.”
Nixon headlined the legislative forum, the first of two events DCAI is planning this year to help citizens understand the impact of the laws on their lives and communities.
DCAI President Melissa Moss said the forum was designed to appeal to voters of both political parties. “We know there are many moderate Republicans and non-party affiliated voters who are as concerned as Democrats about the volume of divisive, hate-driven laws that came out of this legislative session, and we hope they will join us in the fight against this broad-based attack on our freedoms and rights.”
The Right for a Woman to Control Her Own Body
This latest abortion bill, SB 300, bans abortion after six weeks’ gestation before most women realize they’re pregnant. It contains exceptions for rape, incest and human trafficking and gives those victims 15 weeks to terminate. It doesn’t go into effect unless the Florida Supreme Court strikes down its own 1989 precedent finding protection for abortion access in the Privacy Clause of the Florida Constitution.
“The six-week abortion ban — if and when it does go into effect, unfortunately, I have to say ‘when’ because there really isn’t a separation of powers here in the State of Florida anymore because the executive is also stacking the courts and bullying the legislature — the courts will get rid of the right to privacy here,” said Nixon.
In addition, if the six-week ban becomes official, the state will provide $25 million to fund what Nixon calls “anti-abortion fake clinics.”
“A fake clinic is where people try to convince you to have your baby, they bully you into keeping your child. Meanwhile, they don’t want to expand Medicaid, which would save us millions and millions of millions of dollars. Why? Because their campaign donors gave them a ton of money, and they are insurance companies,” Nixon said.
Florida’s current abortion law, which went into effect following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, bans abortion at 15 weeks with no exemptions for rape, incest or human trafficking. The only exceptions are if the pregnancy is a serious risk for the mother or a fatal fetal abnormality is detected, and this requires that women see two doctors, at least 24 hours apart, to obtain certification that an abortion is necessary, Nixon explained.
“We’ve seen certain doctors refuse to do that, resulting in near-death experiences and sometimes death for women,” she said. “This issue is near and dear to me as a Black woman because I know that for many Black women, pregnancy is a death sentence. Black women are 2.6 times more likely than white women to die. And now you’re telling me you’re going to force birth on me? You could be forcing my death.”
She added, “You know how hard it is to get an appointment with the doctor. That’s compounded for folks who are low-income or in rural communities. So again, you’re forcing birth.”
The Right to Live Equally Regardless of Sexual Identity
“We saw a slate of hate filed with 22 anti-LGBTQ bills,” said Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, the state’s largest civil rights organization focused on securing full equality for Florida’s LGBTQ community. “A number of those bills did pass and got consolidated into a handful.”
The “Don’t Say LGBTQ” or “Don’t Say Gay” bill, originally passed in the 2022 legislative session, “came back and doubled down” with several expansions as HB 1060, Maurer said. “It’s all the more infuriating because we’ve had a year’s worth of experience in seeing just how harmful this has been in our classrooms.”
Prohibiting Classroom Instruction on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity
One of the bill’s most dangerous aspects, Maurer says, is its vagueness in calling for “a prohibition on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“The problem is they don’t define what ‘classroom instruction’ is. So a lot of our teachers and folks in classrooms realize there’s significant liability attached to these bills and they’re afraid to go anywhere near that line. They’re already so overburdened … this is yet another thing that is putting their teaching certifications at risk,” Maurer said.
As a result, schools are confused about the rules and students feel the impact. A couple of examples: Schools don’t know if they can form gay-straight alliance groups. And, teachers are removing safe space stickers from their windows, stickers designed to show that they’re an affirming environment for not only LGBTQ students but any student who may be struggling and need someone to talk to.
“It is making the situation for youth in schools much more difficult,” Maurer said.
Banning Use of Pronouns
The bill’s expansion also addresses the issue of pronouns, which Maurer says transgender and nonbinary students feel is an important part of their social transition. Teachers can no longer provide their own pronouns or ask the student their pronouns to try and properly respect them. Even if parents want them to.
“It’s one of those places … in conflict. Because when they’re [legislators] in the building, they want to talk about parents’ rights. Well, what about when that parent says, ‘I want to make sure my kid is respected properly and that they’re using the right pronoun’? This bill says you can’t do that. There’s no recourse. So if that teacher doesn’t feel like it, too bad, you’re out of luck. It’s creating an incredibly anti-LGBTQ environment in schools,” Maurer said.
Book banning also increased under the bill’s expansion. Maurer explained that any county resident can ask for a book to be removed from a school, even if that resident doesn’t have a child in that school, or have any children at all. He shared a recent example that took place at the Tallahassee Classic School, where a parent complained a Renaissance art book was pornographic because it contained a photo of the statue of David.
“Under this ‘Don’t Tell LGBTQ’ expansion, that book has to be removed from every student in the district until they can complete a review. Rather than a policy that says okay, if you don’t feel that book is appropriate for your child, your child isn’t ready for that material, you can sort of quarantine for your child,” said Mauer.
The law is being used to censor a lot of discussion, books and reading materials in the classrooms about LGBTQ stories, LGBTQ authors, storylines about people of color, pioneers in that space and authors of color, Maurer said. “It is being aggressively abused by some far-right groups that are filing lists of 160 books that they want to see pulled in a county.”
What’s more, the bill’s expansion compounds the burden on teachers. “It’s not just what’s in the library and what the media specialists are supposed to be keeping track of. Teachers are being given these scanner guns like you have in Publix, and they’re supposed to review every book in their classroom library to see if it’s got any pornographic content. Some of these teachers are saying ‘I can’t do that, I’m already so overburdened, I’m just going to take out the books.’ So it’s the antithesis of what we should be having happen in our classrooms,” Mauer said.
Banning Gender Affirming Care
SB 254 bans all gender-affirming care for minors, with a small grandfathering for those who are currently in care, and added “incredible restrictions” limiting access for transgender for adults, according to Maurer.
“We saw the legislature operating on a lot of fear and misunderstanding because many of us don’t know what it’s like to be transgender or the parent of a transgender youth who is just trying to find healthcare for your kid.”
Legislators talked about the impact on young people who may not fully know the consequences of their actions and unproven science, Maurer says. Yet it’s “science that has been around for decades and is highly credible with tons of studies and huge sample sizes.”
For transgender adults who have been in care for decades, the law requires they sign a new informed consent form that mandates they obtain a suicide risk assessment every three months.
“Even though they [legislators] want to talk about concepts like medical freedom, they say ‘no, you adults don’t know your own experience of years and decades.’ This is an incredible government overreach. Thankfully this is one of a number of bills that have been challenged in the courts already, and we see some signs of progress there, with some really strong rulings,” Maurer said.
Giving Health Care Providers the License to Discriminate
SB 1580 makes it legal for health care providers, including medical students, to say they have a conscience-based objection to a health care service on the basis of religion, morals or ethics.
“How you define that, I don’t know, but they can raise that objection to deny services,” said Maurer.
The good news, he added, is that although providers can object to a service, they are not supposed to be objecting to a patient. “We’re having to do a lot of education about this and help people advocate for themselves against these overreaches, and to understand their rights and protections.”
Turning Bathroom Use into Trespassing
HB 1521, the anti-trans bathroom bill, “is almost a farce for how poorly written it is,” said Maurer. And although it clearly targets the trans community, he says it impacts everyone the same because it doesn’t contain the word transgender.
“The bill says that if someone is an employee in a covered building they can say you’re in the wrong bathroom and ask you to leave, and if you refuse to leave you are subject to trespass or some form of disciplinary procedures,” said Maurer. “I can’t say, ‘I’m a man in the men’s room, born male, have a male driver’s license.’ There’s no way to prove it. It’s basically somebody asked you, and you said no, you’re guilty of trespass.”
Banning Drag Queens
SB 1438 is another censorship attempt that targets the LGBTQ community and its spaces without using the word “drag,” says Maurer.
The bill is now in the implementation phase, and Equality Florida is helping communities understand that drag and pride can continue within the confines of the law.
“The legislation has this overreaching chilling effect by design so that people will self-sensor too much. But we’ve got to push back, and we’ve got to stand up for our rights where we do have those protections,” he said.
Referring to all the anti-LGBTQ bills and their expansions, Maurer says, “The majority in Tallahassee is falling over themselves to put these attacks forward when they don’t make sense, they’re not based on good public policy and they’re not about safety. It is, again, about political motivations.”
Maurer closed his remarks with a warning. “We have somebody who wants to run in a presidential primary and is in a battle for the far right in that primary and they see the transgender community, and particularly transgender youth, as one of the smallest, most marginalized, least politically powerful groups they can go after and try to score points off of. But we also know they’re just sharpening their weapons to come for the next group. It’s not going to end there.”
The Right to Vote
Sam Coodley, grassroots manager for All Voting is Local Action, an independent organization whose mission is to fight for expanded voter access, said SB 7050 builds on prior voter suppression laws by targeting third-party voter registration organizations.
“We see an increase in fines and fees while simultaneously shortening deadlines, for instance, dropping the amount of days someone has to request a vote by mail ballot, the number of days to return a vote by mail registration,” he said.
According to Democracy Docket, an online source for information about voting rights, SB 7050:
- Requires organizations to reregister for every single election cycle
- Prohibits prefilled information on registration applications
- Shortens the amount of time organizations have to return registration applications from 14 days to 10 and increases the fine associated with late delivery
- Bans noncitizens and individuals with certain felony convictions from handling voter registration applications and imposes fines for each violation of this requirement
- Increases the total aggregate fine that an organization can be levied in each calendar year from $50,000 to $250,000
“One of the most heinous aspects is that noncitizens are not allowed to be in the voter registration process,” said Coodley. “Often these folks are uniquely equipped to go to a community and say, ‘I want to vote and am working on attaining my rights, but you who are not planning to vote, you really need to vote for folks like me.’ That story of self is one of the most powerful tools that some of these folks have.”
In addition, Coodley said, the restriction against using volunteers who have certain felonies is creating “a massive burden for anyone whose done voter registration and relying on volunteers.”
“You don’t know if you’re going to have 20-30-50 percent of the folks necessary coming out [to volunteer], let alone what sort of process we now have to have for some sort of background check on folks in order for them to do their patriotic duty of making sure our community members who wish to vote are able to do so.”
Supervisors of Elections, says Coodley, will feel the impact. “This is another unfunded mandate where now Supervisors of Elections are left having way more responsibility not only to work with third-party voter registration organizations more closely but also take on that slack as we know inevitably there is going to be a chilling effect [that reduces the number of third party organizations and volunteers].
The bill also adds more restrictions on mail-in voting. Democracy Docket reports:
- Shortens the deadline to request from the 10th day before Election Day to the 12th day
- Allows voters to personally pick up a mail-in ballot only if they are unable to go to an early voting location or their assigned Election Day polling place
- Bans anyone who is not an immediate family member from requesting a ballot on behalf of a voter
- Directs mail-in ballot requests to be canceled if any first-class mail to the voter is returned as undeliverable and
- Blocks ballots from being counted if two or more mail-in ballots are returned in the same envelope
“While this new attack is happening, Supervisors of Elections are still scrambling to implement all the previous changes from all the other voter suppression bills,” said Coodley.
But there is some good news. SB 7050 is relaxing requirements on where early voting sites are positioned to more closely resemble election day precincts. “So there is that ability for Supervisors of Elections to plug gaps where there might have been inequities,” Coodley said.
The Right to Public Education
Public schools are under attack on a number of fronts: expanded vouchers, school board elections and teacher unions, according to Michelle Dillion, president of the St. Johns Teachers Association.
Vouchers for All
HB 1 expands the school voucher program to all families, regardless of income, offering families $8,000 to send each of their children to a private, charter or home school program, rather than to a public school.
“It means someone of Tiger Woods’ level of wealth, for example, can get a voucher,” said Dillon. “I have no problem with private schools. But the way we look at this is, level the playing field. You’re taking our tax dollars, and if public schools have to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop and high stakes state testing, then every other school should too,” said Dillon.
She said that although private and in-home schools do a “great job,” students often come back to public school for a variety of reasons, including expulsion for behavior.
“At public schools, we love and welcome all and we do our very best to meet their academic and social needs. So then this child comes back and the money is gone and the teachers usually have to play catch up….as taxpayers, those entities should have the same accountability that we have,” Dillon said.
School Board Terms and Elections
Dillon opposed HB 477, which reduces school board terms from 12 years to eight. “I may not particularly like someone on my school board but eight years is not long enough in my opinion to learn what you have to know; there’s so much information a school board member must absorb to be effective,” she said.
In addition, the legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment to make elections partisan. The amendment will go on the 2024 ballot, and if approved by voters, school board candidates will run partisan campaigns beginning in 2026.
“So what used to be nonpartisan, with people running out of a love of public education, that’s going to change. And if we weren’t already divisive enough at some of our school board meetings, I fear that’s going to get worse,” Dillon said.
Teacher and Other Public Sector Unions
SB 256 requires that all public sector unions except police, firefighters and corrections officers have 60% membership, up from 50%, to remain certified. “The legislature did its homework. They looked at all 67 counties, and nearly all school districts were at 50% or above, so they raised the bar to 60%,” said Dillon.
Dillon said the bill also changed the application process for joining the union and the rules for how union dues are paid, more tactics to try and destroy unions.
“Make no mistake. That is that goal,” Dillon said. “I and every other union president across the state are busting our behinds, working together, moving forward every day to get people to transition to this alternate dues payment and to grow our membership to 60%. But a lot of teachers are leaving the profession, so every time we welcome someone into our union family, another teacher resigns. So it’s that constantly moving target.”
What Citizens Can Do
Nixon on Florida: It’s up us to spread the news about what’s going on. People need to know how this legislation is going to negatively impact them. Thirty years of Republican rule in the State of Florida and your property insurance is going up, there’s an 8,000+ educator shortage in public school systems, there’s a lot of crime, and they’re doing nothing about the rising sea level.
Push back. Get active. Knock on doors. Have conversations. Take it outside these walls and talk with church members, people in the grocery stores. We have to do more because it’s only going to get worse. We have the opportunity to put our state back on the right path, to ensure that all Floridians, no matter who you love, no matter your zip code, can thrive and flourish.
Maurer on LGBTQ Equality: Talk to your peers. If you are a parent or grandparent of a transgender young person, you have friends and neighbors who don’t know what that is like. We understand that it’s hard to wrap folks’ mind around that if they’re not familiar with it.
Coodley on Voting Rights: Ask your Supervisor of Elections to do public education about SB 7050 and ask them for new early voting sites.
Dillon on Public Schools: Talk to your elected officials no matter their party and meet with your legislators here locally. I think that makes a bigger difference than email, and forge that relationship. Maybe you have a story — your daughter, son, granddaughter, grandson in public school had an empty classroom all year and a rotating door of substitutes. I know that’s been the story in St. John’s County, kids shoved into an auditorium because there’s no one to take that job and no one to fill the sub position. Tell those stories to your elected leaders, hold them accountable. Move past identity politics and have real human conversations with people in office even if it’s hard to do.