Republicans try banning pride flags in schools twice during final hours of Utah Legislature

The Utah Senate voted down the last-minute attempt to have lawmakers designated which flags school officials and employees can display in classrooms.

On Friday afternoon, with eight hours remaining in the 2024 Utah Legislature, Senate Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to circumvent the normal legislative process and sneak through a de facto ban on displaying pride flags in school classrooms. A similar measure was defeated in the Utah House earlier this week.

Later, a third attempt to pass the bill — this time with only 20 minutes remaining in the session —also failed.

On Friday, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, gutted HB477 — which specified how schools should deal with employees who are the subject of a criminal investigation and had already passed the House — and replaced it with a specific list of which flags teachers would be allowed to display in their classrooms. The legislation also would have allowed parents to sue in certain situations.

“School officials and employees may not use their positions to endorse, promote, or disparage a particular religious, denominational, sectarian, agnostic, or atheistic belief or viewpoint,” the bill reads. Those officials and employees would only have been able to display a flag from a specific list of flags — including the U.S. flag, Utah flag, military flags, flags of other countries, flags for colleges and universities, and sports teams. Flags that are part of the school’s approved curriculum would also be allowed.

McCay, arguing for the bill, alleged students are being indoctrinated in Utah’s classrooms.

“We need to focus on teaching kids and keep politics out of it,” McCay said. “We should not have politically charged content be the center of our classrooms. I think that’s what the taxpayer wants when they send their kids to school. They want a content-neutral environment.”

Cottonwood Heights Democrat Sen. Kathleen Riebe, who is an educator, appeared frustrated by the last-minute attempt to micromanage teachers in the classroom.

“We say we believe in local control, yet here we are micromanaging our schools again,” she told her Senate colleagues. “We keep saying we love our teachers — and yet here we have another bill that makes our teachers afraid to teach what they think is appropriate.”

If passed into law, the measure may have raised significant constitutional issues for the state.

A legal analysis from legislative counsel obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune says the hastily substituted bill could violate free speech protections provided by the U.S. and Utah State Constitutions.

Bringing the issue to the floor without a committee hearing and with little notice during the session’s waning hours made many in the Senate uneasy. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he had never seen anything like it during his tenure on the Hill.

“I think this deserves a discussion. I think this deserves a hearing. I think this deserves public comment,” Thatcher said on the Senate floor. “I think that hours before the end of the legislative session is the wrong time to bring up such complex, sensitive and difficult matters.”

Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, said she was puzzled by the last-minute attempt to circumvent the normal legislative process.

“The bill that was voted on in the House is not the bill that we’re voting on now. So, if we pass a bill that is entirely different than what the other body passed, that isn’t my understanding of germane,” Plumb said.

Ultimately, the attempt failed 9-20 after a handful of Republicans changed their votes from yes to no after it became clear the measure was headed to defeat.

With less than an hour remaining before the constitutionally mandated end of the session at midnight, Senate Republicans retreated from the floor for a last-minute caucus. When they emerged, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, attempted to revive the bill on the Senate floor, but that effort also failed.