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Lawsuit seeks to block Washington ‘parental rights’ initiative

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Lawsuit seeks to block Washington ‘parental rights’ initiative

May 23, 2024 | 7:07 pm ET
By Grace Deng
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Lawsuit seeks to block WA ‘parental rights’ initiative
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Opponents of a Republican-backed initiative establishing a “bill of rights” for parents of K-12 students sued the state of Washington on Thursday to keep the measure from going into effect. 

The state Legislature approved the initiative earlier this year. It’s set to take effect June 6. The lawsuit argues that students, parents and school districts will be harmed by the initiative and that it was drafted in a way that violates the state Constitution. 

“The initiative passed because of deception and confusion, and it will cause life-altering negative outcomes for queer and trans students if it is implemented,” said Adrien Leavitt, staff attorney for ACLU of Washington, which along with two other legal groups filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court on behalf of 10 plaintiffs.

Initiative 2081 calls for a range of school materials, such as textbooks, curriculum and a child’s medical records, to be easily available for review by parents. Parents will also be given notice and allowed to opt their child out of assignments and other activities involving questions about a child’s sexual experiences or their family’s religious beliefs. 

The initiative, written by Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, and one of six initiatives backed by conservative hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, passed unanimously through the Washington Senate and 82-15 through the House, with only Democrats opposed. 

Democrats who supported the initiative emphasized that the legislation did not change any protections for marginalized groups and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said much of what’s outlined in the initiative is already state law. 

But the ACLU of Washington, Legal Voice and QLaw, the three organizations spearheading the lawsuit, argue the initiative “misled state lawmakers and the public.”

“It violates the State Constitution because it fails to disclose how it revises and affects existing laws,” the complaint says. “This causes confusion about the legal duties of schools, their staff and contractors, and school-based healthcare providers, as well as the rights of students.” 

The lawsuit also contends that the initiative would strip important privacy protections for medical and mental health records for LGBTQ+ students, youth of color and students from other marginalized backgrounds.

“I think we knew that was likely coming,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, about the lawsuit. “We knew there were ambiguities. We were convinced it wouldn’t do much harm.”

Some Democratic lawmakers were uncomfortable enacting the measure, but by doing so, Pedersen said, the Legislature kept control of the process and could amend the statute next session to deal with vague language. Had voters approved it, lawmakers would have to wait two years before they could amend it.

In a statement to the Standard, Heywood said the ACLU has “made their disdain for the democratic process abundantly clear.” 

“We expect [Washington Attorney General] Bob Ferguson to uphold his duty within the law to protect the will of the people and shut down this frivolous attempt by the ACLU to deprive parents of their civil liberties,” Heywood said. 

When the initiative passed, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups voiced concerns about the potentially chilling effect it could have on LGBTQ+ youth. The initiative came as the socially conservative “parental rights” movement, which aims to restrict schools’ abilities to teach about gender, sexuality and race without parental consent, has gained influence across the United States

LGBTQ+ students and advocates across the country say the movement is less about parental rights and more about targeting and silencing LGBTQ+ youth. 

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are South Whidbey School District, equity-focused nonprofit organizations and a parent of two students in Seattle Public Schools. 

Standard reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.