Utah teachers wouldn’t be able to display pride flags under lawmaker’s draft proposal

The draft legislation would broaden the scope of topics prohibited for endorsement by school employees, specifically “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” and “political and social viewpoints.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, looks on as a student speaks against a classroom neutrality proposal during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Utah teachers wouldn’t be allowed to display pride flags or any symbols perceived as endorsing “political” viewpoints at school, according to a new draft proposal state lawmakers were asked to consider.

The draft legislation would expand the range of topics school employees are not allowed to “endorse, promote or disparage,” building upon existing restrictions set by Utah law to uphold “constitutional freedom” in public schools.

Specifically, the proposal would add “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” and “political and social viewpoints” to the list.

Current law prohibits school employees from persuading students to change their religious views, but the draft proposal would also prevent them from inviting, suggesting or encouraging a student to “reconsider or change” their gender identity, sexual orientation and political or social beliefs.

The draft legislation, dubbed “Classroom Neutrality,” is sponsored by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, who presented it before members of the Education Interim Committee early Nov. 15.

The proposal would also prevent school employees from displaying “symbols,” “images” or using language to promote or disparage the potentially restricted subjects.

Such topics could still be discussed, and relevant symbols could still be displayed, if they are part of approved curriculum, according to the draft legislation. The proposal also makes exceptions for religious clothing and accessories “central to the individual’s sincerely held religious belief,” the American Flag and personal photographs of family members.

“The intention of this bill is to provide some clear guidelines,” Stenquist said during the meeting, “to make sure that in the rare cases where inappropriate conversations or advocacy or pushing up certain ideologies is happening in classrooms, that we really help build up trust in our public education system.”

The committee ultimately took no action on the draft legislation Nov. 15, with several of Stenquist’s fellow lawmakers arguing the language of the bill was too vague. Stenquist said he will continue to work on the draft proposal ahead of the Legislature’s general session, which begins in January, calling it a personal priority.

“I find this really nebulous and hard to follow,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. “It sounds like we’re trying to negate people’s lives by saying that we can’t talk about sexual orientation. I’m concerned about that, because there are kids in our classrooms that have two daddies and two mommies.”

Stenquist replied that the bill does the opposite of what Riebe described.

“What we want to do is we want to protect people, protect students, protect parents, even if they’re in the minority,” he said.

Is statute ‘best place to address’ concerns?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, questions Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, on his classroom neutrality proposal during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, shared Riebe’s concerns, saying that while he supports classroom neutrality, the draft did not provide a clear explanation of what would be considered endorsing a political or religious viewpoint. He used an example of displaying a flag.

“Reading this, I could not put up a Ukrainian flag unless I was teaching about Ukraine,” Fillmore said.

He listed several other questions the draft did not provide guidance for: What about a flag with a rainbow on it? A family photo taken in front of a pride flag? Or a family photo taken in front of a Latter-day Saint temple?

Fillmore also mentioned the politically divisive Israel-Hamas war. He asked if teachers who happen to be Israeli or Palestinian could display symbols or flags representing their heritage.

“Are some teachers allowed to express that viewpoint because their personal history, but other people who don’t have that personal history, then they’re suddenly expressing a political viewpoint?” Fillmore said. “I worry a little bit that statute might not be the best place to address these [issues].”

Fillmore said such concerns should be considered an employee performance issue rather than a policy issue.

“When we turn performance issues into policy issues,” he said, “we really make things thorny, because we end up catching things that we didn’t intend.”

‘Selective enforcement’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parent and constituent Megan Kallas and Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, talk about Stenquist's classroom neutrality proposal during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Marina Lowe, policy director for Equality Utah, noted that the potentially restricted topics under Stenquist’s draft proposal specifically relate to the LGBTQ community.

“That’s the only group that was explicitly mentioned,” Lowe said. “I mean, it’s religion, political and social beliefs, and LGBTQ. So, it’s right there in the bill.”

She agreed that the language was unclear, saying there are too many “what ifs.”

“I think it’s legally problematic,” Lowe said of the draft legislation. “I think it’s vague under the Constitution. … And I think it would invite selective enforcement.”

For instance, she said, “Nobody is going to probably complain or file a lawsuit about the Pledge of Allegiance being said, but they might complain about a gay teacher wearing a wedding ring.”

The draft legislation, according to Stenquist, came about after a constituent, Megan Kallas, reached out to him with concerns that her elementary-aged child was being exposed to what she said were inappropriate conversations led by an adult employee about gender identity, gender fluidity and pronouns at school.

Kallas shared her story with lawmakers during the Nov. 15 meeting.

“Most of these conversations were not a part of the curriculum that was being taught,” Kallas said. “And when this happened, I [was] understandably a little upset because my daughter was in first grade. And she doesn’t know what that stuff is yet. And this conversation happened without my knowledge, without my consent.”

Lowe said based on Kallas’ testimony, it’s clear LGBTQ-related discussions sparked the draft legislation.

“But in many ways, this bill is much broader because political beliefs and social beliefs cover any number of topics,” she said.

Equality Utah is open to working with Stenquist to develop language that doesn’t stigmatize the LGBTQ community but achieves the goal of neutrality, Lowe said.

Draft legislation is personal priority, Stenquist says

Stenquist argued that the draft proposal doesn’t target “any specific ideology or political worldview.”

He added that “Classroom Neutrality” is among his top three priorities for the general session. He plans to consider fellow lawmakers’ suggestions as he revises the draft, he said.

“We do want to be very clear and specific to what things are not prohibited by the bill,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Stenquist has sponsored a measure that stood to limit LGBTQ-related discussions in schools.

During this year’s legislative session, Stenquist ran a bill that would have prohibited any discussion of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. HB550 took language directly from a controversial Florida bill that became more widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” measure.

But after pushback from the LGBTQ community, Stenquist revised his draft, lifting the proposed ban on sexual orientation and gender identity but keeping the prohibition on sexuality. The bill ultimately failed to pass.