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Conservatives Attack Student Nondiscrimination Bill

February 18, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

As you probably know, one thing we track at OpenCongress is which bills in Congress are getting the most buzz in blogs. The list of most-blogged about bills is always an interesting place to look to find issues in Congress that aren’t on the mainstream media’s radar and are outside the generally recognized realm of congressional action, but are having a big impact in the citizen-powered blogosphere.

One bill that has been bubbling up the most-blogged list recently is H.R. 4530, the “Student Nondiscrimation Act of 2010.” In the past 7 days, it has been the second most-blogged about bill in Congress, below the stimulus bill, which is experiencing a one-year anniversary this week, and above all the big issues in Congress right now, like health care reform, climate change and financial reform.

The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Jared Polis [D, CO-2] on Jan. 27, 2010, and is co-sponsored by 65 other Democrats. It has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor, but hasn’t seen any other action in the legislative process yet.

So, why all the buzz about this relatively obscure bill? Well, according to this post from Mission America, which bills itself as a campaign to combat homosexuality, witchcraft and feminist spirituality, it would let federal officials “create pro-homosexual programs and policies to their hearts’ delight.” Mission America seems to have been one of the first groups to stir up concern over the bill, but many more have since joined the fray. Jim Hoft at the influential Big Government blog recently called it “the most radical anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-family bill through Congress that we have seen in decades.”

For context, here’s the non-partisan Congressional Research Service’s analysis of the bill, with links added by me to the relevant sections of the legislative text for you to dig in deeper and read in context:

  • Prohibits public school students from being excluded from participating in, or subject to discrimination under, any federally-assisted educational program on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or that of their associates.
  • Considers harassment to be a form of discrimination.
  • Prohibits retaliation against anyone for opposing conduct they reasonably believe to be unlawful under this Act.
  • Authorizes federal departments and agencies to enforce these prohibitions by cutting off the educational assistance of recipients found to be violating them.
  • Allows an aggrieved individual to assert a violation of this Act in a judicial proceeding and recover reasonable attorney’s fees should they prevail.
  • Deems a state’s receipt of federal educational assistance for a program to constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity for conduct prohibited under this Act regarding such program.

In other words, no school program that receives public funding would be allowed to exclude children because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, be they gay, transgender or straight. Harassment based on gender or sexual orientation, defined as “conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate,” would also not be allowed as a sanctioned element of a public school program. If schools discriminate or sanction harassment in their federally funded programs, federal education agencies would be given the authority to terminate their funding.

Most of the opposition, I suspect, isn’t about the contents of the bill itself. For months, conservatives have been targeting Kevin Jennings, who was appointed by President Obama to the office of Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, because of his past work with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Jennings has been under attack by conservatives who claim that he taught underage children how to engage in sex and failed to report incidents of statutory rape that he was made aware of. Both claims have since been determined to be false.

The bill appears to be being used by conservatives to flesh out a conspiracy theory that the Obama Administration is trying to turn American youth gay. Hoft at Big Government writes that “the law would give the controversial Safe Schools Czar, Kevin Jennings, almost unlimited authority to mandate sexual indoctrination in public schools at taxpayer expense.” And Mission America writes that federal officials “can create pro-homosexual programs and policies to their hearts’ delight if this bill passes.” However, nowhere does the bill give any federal officials any new authority to influence the content of what is taught in public schools. Their only new authority would be for blocking funds for programs that specifically discriminate against or exclude children because they are straight, gay or transgender. There is no room in that authority for creating programs or mandating curriculums. It’s simply not in the bill and not supported by any honest interpretation of the bill’s provisions.

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