‘Parental bill of rights’ defeated in House; blocked from returning in 2024
This story was updated on May 18, 2023, at 7:39 p.m.
Tess Sumner came out to their mom as bisexual in middle school. Then they came out to a teacher. But they didn’t tell everyone. Some family members, like Sumner’s great uncle, had voiced opinions against LGBTQ people that suggested the conversation wouldn’t go well.
“I was like, I wouldn’t want them to know that I’m doing this because I don’t know how they would react,” they recalled in an interview. “But I knew that it wouldn’t be positively.”
It’s an experience that Sumner, now a sophomore in high school, reflected on Thursday as the New Hampshire House debated legislation that would require teachers to tell parents if their child identified as a different gender at school.
“Say that eighth-grade teacher had gone to my mom, or gone to my grandmother when she came up to a school function and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, your daughter Tess is queer and she thinks she’s bisexual’ … I don’t know how I would feel about that,” said Sumner, who now uses they and she pronouns.
On Thursday, the New Hampshire House voted to “indefinitely postpone” the “parental bill of rights,” using a dramatic tactic to kill the legislation for the rest of 2023 and preventing it from returning to the House in 2024. In a 195-190 vote, the chamber took one of the strongest actions possible to defeat a bill.
The vote capped a fierce and emotional debate this year, and delivered a victory to advocates who said the legislation threatened the privacy and well-being of LGBTQ students. Republican lawmakers strongly denounced the vote, accusing Democrats of disrespecting the will and autonomy of parents in the state, and vowing to continue the political fight.
But to Sumner, whose mom had excused her from class to attend the vote, the outcome was a chance to feel supported. Sitting with other advocates in the gallery, frantically checking the General Court website to follow the flurry of amendments, and waiting for each roll call vote, Sumner felt cared for.
“It let you know that you’re not alone,” they said. “And that I’m not alone. And no one here was alone in this fight.”
Others felt differently.
“The 14th Amendment secures a parent’s right to guide their children in their education,” said Victoria Sullivan, a conservative advocate and former state representative who watched the vote. “And anyone that voted against this today, in my opinion, broke their oath of office to uphold the Constitution.”
Senate Bill 272 listed a number of rights parents have over school districts relating to their children. Many of them exist in law currently, including the right to inspect the school curriculum, to opt a child out of sex education and other school materials, and to waive the requirement for vaccinations under religious or medical exemptions.
But the bill also added the requirement that school employees must tell inquiring parents whether a student uses nicknames or alternative pronouns that would indicate a gender transition.
Supporters said the disclosure should be required as a measure of transparency for parents. But opponents said it could lead to students being “outed” to their parents about their gender identity against their will, and before they are ready to tell them directly. And they warned that that could lead to homelessness and suicide for LGBTQ youth in unsupportive homes.
SB 272 allowed teachers to decline to disclose the information if they had “clear and compelling evidence” that doing so would bring harm to the student under the child protection statutes. It also allowed parents to sue schools or individual school employees and seek damages if the law were not followed.
The House had previously defeated House Bill 10, a similar bill, in an “inexpedient to legislate” motion in March. But Thursday’s action is broader and precludes future legislation.
“When a question is postponed indefinitely, that question shall not be acted on during the same session, unless two-thirds of those members present and voting vote in favor thereof,” the House rules state.
From the beginning, SB 272 – and a similar bill in the House – attracted intense advocacy from both sides. Opponents organized LGBTQ students to give testimony, and waged e-mail, letter, and phone campaigns seeking to shore up Democratic opposition and peel off Republican support.
And supporters encouraged parents to show up to hearings and State House rallies and push for the bill.
The final stretch of the campaign this week saw Republican and Democratic leadership officials work to count heads and boost the turnout of their members for Thursday’s session vote.
But while all Democrats voted in unison to shelve the bill Thursday, not all Republicans supported passing it. Rep. Dan Hynes, a Bedford Republican, sponsored a floor amendment to make student sessions with school counselors confidential from parents. That amendment passed with Democratic support.
And Rep. Mike Bordes, a Laconia Republican, pushed for an amendment that stripped out the sections requiring the disclosure of a student’s gender identity changes. That amendment, which also passed, effectively neutered the bill of its controversial pieces – even before the House moved to shelve it completely.
Supporters of the bill argued ardently in favor of the bill ahead of the vote – and angrily when it was struck down.
“For the next two years, parents will have to continue to accept that school is a mysterious and secretive black box where they deposit their children,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, said in a speech that drew cheers and boos. “Who knows what happens inside that box, and who knows what comes out the other side.”
But some conservative supporters, like Sullivan, were more critical of House Republican leaders for failing to muster the numbers in the chamber to pass the bill. In recent interviews, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu had indicated that he would likely sign the bill if it had passed Thursday.
But seven Republican House members had sought excused absences Thursday, one due to illness and six due to important business, the House clerk’s office reported.
“We didn’t have the numbers showing up, which is unacceptable,” Sullivan said. “If you are elected to this seat, you need to show up, especially for something as important as this.”
As lawmakers broke for lunch and filed out of the room immediately following the vote, emotions were high. Many Republicans turned their frustrations against Democrats, who they said had abandoned parents in favor of schools and teachers. And some grumbled about the Republicans who voted against their caucus, raising the prospects of challenging them in primaries with more conservative candidates.
“By denying parents the opportunity to exercise their inherent authority, Democrats have undermined the very fabric of our society, where the family unit and parental involvement play an essential role in the upbringing and development of our children,” wrote Senate Republicans in a joint statement released Thursday.
But Linds Jakows, the co-founder of the advocacy group 603 Equality, praised the demise of the bill, noting the work the organization had put into advocating against it. Jakows had themselves been outed to their father against their will in high school, and processed the legislation through that experience.
“Today is a big sigh of relief for all of us who knew that this bill could have put us in danger in high school,” said Jakows. “I’m really glad that every kid in New Hampshire public schools will be able to find a safe space to be themselves and to just receive support, and it should be that simple.”
For Sumner, the process was personally satisfying, too. Even as a high school student, Sumner had advocated with the New Hampshire Youth Movement, and had penned an op-ed published in the Concord Monitor, a feat celebrated by their teachers. The final outcome provided vindication, Sumner said.
“It shows that the youth of New Hampshire are respected,” they said.