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Bill to curtail sexual-orientation discussion in schools won't get a hearing

In Backroom

11:40 am on Tue, 04.24.12

The Missouri House’s education committee won’t hold a hearing on legislation aimed at curtailing discussion of sexual orientation in public schools, a proposal that’s sparked an intense backlash since it started moving through the process earlier this month.

House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chairman Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, told the Beacon on Tuesday morning that his committee would not hold a hearing for the legislation proposed by Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Fairdealing. The one-sentence bill states that “no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school.”

The legislation – which is similar to a bill in Tennessee – has received increased media attention since House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, referred the  measure to Dieckhaus’ committee last week.

PROMO – a statewide advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Missourians – argued that the bill would “eliminate discussions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in public schools, prohibit teachers from addressing bullying based on sexual orientation, and likely ban gay-straight alliances.” And Missouri NEA President Chris Guinther said in a statement Monday that the legislation “undermines” efforts to combat bullying in public schools.

Dieckhaus said that he never intended to give the bill a hearing.

“I’ve gotten, I don’t know, a dozen or so e-mails and I’ve had a lot of people from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses just kind of stop me in the hallway and say ‘Hey, I’d appreciate it if you don’t hear the bill,’” Dieckhaus said. “But I never intended to hear it.”

Even if Cookson’s bill did get passed out of committee, its chances of passage this late in the legislative session were low. Not only would it have to clear the House, but it would also have to go through the Missouri Senate – which is currently bogged down in deliberations over the state budget.

It is possible that the language in Cookson’s bill could be attached on another piece of legislation as an amendment.

“At this point, House bills being heard in committee there really isn’t a whole lot of point unless somebody just wants to get a conversation started so they work on something through the interim or potentially refine their legislation for next session,” Dieckhaus said. “So I don’t hear a whole lot of House bills right now unless I have a specific request from somebody that’s just trying to fine tune or work through an issue.”

A.J. Bockelman, the executive director of PROMO, said in a telephone interview that Dieckhaus had told him the bill would likely not get a hearing. But he added, “The intent behind this bill belies a deeper misunderstanding of the LGBT community.”

Some groups opposed to the bill, such as PROMO, have heaped criticism on the bill’s cosponsors, which includes Republican House leaders such as Tilley, House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country.

“Even some of the statements made by some of the bill’s sponsors – if you look at the Huffington Post article yesterday, the press release that Cookson put out, the statements from [Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County] – they all show that there’s a complete misunderstanding and misconception of the LGBT community,” Bockelman said.

While noting that the bill wasn’t a priority in the waning days of session, Jones told the Springfield News-Leader yesterday that the bill “simply stands for the proposition that certain things are appropriate to be taught in schools and certain things are appropriate to be taught at home.” And in a statement placed on Progress Missouri's Twitter feed, Cookson said the bill “is meant to protect the moral values that are most important to Missouri families.”

“In a time when our public schools continue to struggle financially, we want their focus to be solely on core educational issues such as math, science and reading; and not on topics that are better left for discussion in the home at the discretion of parents,” said Cookson.

He added that the bill wouldn’t prevent students "struggling with sexual identity" from talking with counselors. “It’s also important to point out that my bill does not target a particular sexual orientation but instead says instruction or materials related to any sexual orientation should not take place in our schools," Cookson said.

PROMO and Progress Missouri launched a website this week allowing people opposed to Cookson’s bill to upload web videos. Bockelman said that when someone looks at the legislature, “it’s so easy to disregard an e-mail or a letter that comes in.”

“Our response has to be more visual, more emotional,” Bockelman said. “Because this issue is very emotional for our community.”

Bockelman added that the controversy over Cookson’s bill could be an opportunity to focus attention on passing anti-bullying bills with provisions aimed at protecting LGBT students.

“Every time we get this in the public realm in large news outlets, it brings more of this to light,” said Bockelman, responding to a question about whether controversy over Cookson’s bill would help efforts on anti-bullying legislation. “It helps our efforts in the long run. We are in an effort year over year to try to get this passed. And I realized that it’s not something that happens quickly. It’s about public education and breaking down those barriers of discrimination.”

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