Kentucky Senate approves ‘parental rights’ bill despite pleas to protect vulnerable youth

By: - February 16, 2023 5:54 pm

A statue of frontier surgeon Eprhaim McDowell looked on as the Kentucky Fairness Rally for LGBTQ Rights drew a crowd to the Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 15. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Sarah Ladd)

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

FRANKFORT — Despite pleas by the few Democrats in the Kentucky Senate to protect “vulnerable, marginalized children,” the supermajority of Republicans passed a controversial bill around parental rights and gender identity policies for students Thursday afternoon.

Among the provisions in Senate Bill 150, the legislation would prohibit any requirements that school staff and students use another student’s preferred pronouns and would also prohibit the Kentucky Department of Education or the Kentucky Board of Education from issuing guidance regarding the use of a student’s preferred pronouns. The department issued such guidance last year

Democrats and LGBTQ-rights advocates say such provisions could lead to school staff or other students misgendering and bullying LGBTQ students who request a certain set of preferred pronouns. Bill sponsor Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, has repeatedly pushed back on such criticism, saying the bill doesn’t prevent staff or students from using another student’s preferred pronouns. 

Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, speaks against Senate Bill 150 on the Senate floor. She holds her father’s Purple Heart. (Photo for the Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley. )

An emotional plea on the Senate floor came from Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, who gave the legislative body a choice of what she considered a  “yes” vote on the bill to mean. 

“Your vote ‘yes’ on this bill means one of two things: either you believe that trans children do not exist, or you believe that trans children do not deserve to exist. I can tell you, these children exist,” Berg said. 

Berg in her speech invoked her transgender son, Henry Berg-Bousseau, who died by suicide in December. She mentioned how he was alone when he testified against a bill in 2015, yet in present day she was able to stand by other transgender youth at a Wednesday rally for LGBTQ rights

“Yesterday at that rally, I was able to look to my right and see beautiful, happy faces of trans children from all over this state who will no longer be kept in the closet,” Berg said. “We care about our children. How hard is it to extend a hand and say, ‘Here, you can be safe with me?’”

In introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Wise said there had been a lot of “misinformation” about the legislation and that it doesn’t prevent school staff or students from using specific names requested to be used by a student. 

“But pronouns are different. The terms ‘he’ and ‘she’ communicate fixed facts about a person, and teachers should not be forced to violate their consciences regarding what they know to be true or not true,” Wise said. 

Wise was the only Republican who spoke in favor of the bill on the Senate floor. Berg tried to file amendments to change the bill, but such amendments were declared out of order by Republican leadership for not having been filed 24 hours in advance of the bill reaching the Senate floor. 

Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, speaks in support of Senate Bill 150 on the Senate floor. He is the prime sponsor. (Photo for the Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, took issue with the amendments not being considered, noting that the legislation had been changed within the past day by Wise through a committee substitute bill,  not giving enough to file floor amendments on the new bill. 

“We are supposed to be the deliberative body. That’s one reason I wanted to be here. Things like this embarrass me,” Webb said. 

Senate President Robert Stivers said the substitute version of Senate Bill 150 was made available yesterday and “would have been pretty close” to the full 24 hours necessary to file a floor amendment on the bill. 

After the vote had concluded, Berg sobbed at her desk while being comforted by others.

LGBTQ people, advocates condemn Republicans in committee

Before the bill reached the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, the Senate Education Committee again debated the issues when Wise presented the committee substitute.

The bill was sent back to the committee to reportedly make a technical change after it had passed out of the committee last week, and the legislation saw several changes through a committee substitute by Wise. Those changes included allowing parents to have access to review any well-being or health assessment before such assessments are given to students. 

Several people testified against the bill, including former Republican state Rep. Bob Heleringer of Louisville, a lobbyist for the LGBTQ-rights group the Fairness Campaign

“Why are we singling these people out?” Heleringer said. “How many transgender kids are there in the state that is so deserving of this kind of attention?”

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, questioned Wise in the committee about why provisions regarding the use of a student’s preferred pronouns had not been changed, saying it appeared that the bill would allow for “intimidation, harassment and or bullying of that child by adults” regarding a child’s gender identity. 

Wise responded that nothing in the bill would prevent students from requesting to use a “non-birth-conforming pronoun” or from school staff or students from addressing a student with preferred pronouns.

“It allows still for the First Amendment, for faculty, for those wishing to do so — or not. Up to them,” Wise said. 

Berg, who is not part of the Education Committee, sat next to Thomas in the chairs set up for the committee as she watched Wise and others testify. 

Chris Hartman of the Fairness Campaign testifies before the Senate Education Committee. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Liam Niemeyer)

Chris Hartman, the executive director of the Fairness Campaign, in his testimony mentioned protesters who spoke at an LGTBQ-rights rally. He also invoked the name of Berg’s son in his words, screaming at times at the committee. 

“I know you saw our young people. Perfect, whole, divine, made in the image of God, who are terrified that you will take away their basic dignity and respect,” Hartman said. “And to do it in front of Karen Berg is a sin.” 

Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, responded directly to Hartman’s comments in explaining her “yes” vote on the bill, saying Hartman was accusing them of not caring about Berg.

“This is a bill about parental consent. This is a bill about making sure parents know if their kids are suicidal regarding this issue,” Tichenor said. 

Some of Senate Bill 150’s other provisions would also require school districts to notify parents of health services and mental health services related to contraception, human sexuality, and family planning and allow parents to decline such specific services. 

One Republican senator voted “no” with the two Democrats on the committee, saying that he didn’t believe all stakeholders on the issues involved were being properly heard. 

“We need to have a lot of dialogue in respect to the emotion that has been brought to this,” said Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield. “I’d like to hear a little bit more from educators and teachers in the classroom about this, and I think it’s just premature at this point in time to act on this bill.”

Meredith was the only senator not present for the vote on the Senate floor.

After the bill had passed and the committee was adjourning, Hartman walked out of the room yelling “shame” repeatedly. Jessica Bowman, a Lexington mother who has a gay daughter and testified against the bill, told the committee that they “just killed kids.” 

Bowman in an interview after the committee hearing said she wished the legislature would focus on other pressing issues instead of “targeting a very small number of kids.” 

“Senator Wise keeps commenting that it doesn’t require teachers to use the wrong pronouns, but it also still allows teachers to use the wrong pronouns, and also allows their peers to use the wrong pronouns,” Bowman said. 

McKenna Horsley contributed to this report.

Gov. Andy Beshear spoke to the fairness rally Thursday. (Photo for the Kentucky Lantern by Sarah Ladd)

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.