Utah teachers wouldn’t be able to have pride flags or other ‘political’ symbols in class under updated bill

The proposal would still allow teachers to display family photos, wear religious clothing or jewelry and hang national or state flags.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pride flag is raised at Washington Square by Salt Lake City and LGBTQ+ leaders to mark the start of Pride Month on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

A Utah bill that would prohibit teachers from displaying pride flags or any other symbol perceived as endorsing “political” viewpoints at school has moved one step closer to becoming law after narrowly passing through a House committee on Monday morning.

Previously called “Classroom Neutrality,” HB303 would prevent school officials from “endorsing, promoting, or disparaging certain beliefs or viewpoints,” building upon existing restrictions set by Utah law to uphold “constitutional freedom” in public schools.

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

It comes amid a recent wave of anti-DEI measures that mandate “political neutrality” while also prohibiting various equitable practices and programs within Utah K-12 public schools.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, told committee members Monday that the bill addresses a “growing problem” of culture wars infiltrating Utah classrooms.

(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.

“We want to make sure that it’s safe for all students,” Stenquist said. “[The bill] reassures parents that students are not being exposed to some political or ideological ideas that they may not agree with.”

Current law prohibits school employees from persuading students to change their religious views, but the bill 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.

Despite the proposed restrictions, it would still allow teachers to display family photographs, wear religious clothing or jewelry and hang national or state flags. That’s a change from a previous version of the bill, which would have banned all flags irrelevant to an approved curriculum except for the U.S. flag.

Many members of the public spoke out against the bill on Monday, saying it directly targets the LGBTQ community.

“I’m particularly concerned with the language around sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Kevin Labresh, a psychologist at the Davis School District. “In my setting, I meet with a lot of students for mental health counseling and whether people agree or not, LGBTQ students exist and make up a large portion of my caseload.”

Others expressed their support, including Melanie Mortensen, who spoke on behalf of the conservative parents’ group Utah Parents United.

“We recognize the majority of teachers are trying to do their best and teach within acceptable guidelines, but there are many who are afraid and unclear about what can and cannot be said in the classroom,” Mortensen said.

Mortensen previously ran for a seat on the state school board in 2022 but lost to Democrat incumbent Carol Barlow Lear.

“Clear structure helps create opportunities for the teaching of civic engagement and dialogue in classrooms where we need at most,” Mortensen said. “This bill creates structure and transparency for our teachers.”

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

During last 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.