Senate Bill 150, the legislation that sponsors call a parent’s rights measure and opponents label as the worst anti-transgender law in the country, is set to take effect on June 29.
The bill bans gender-affirming care for minors, tightens school policies on transgender youth, and limits what schools can teach about human sexuality and gender identity. The ACLU of Kentucky and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have sued to block implementation of the health care portions of the measure. Recent guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education calls into question a portion of the law about school instruction of human sexuality.
The non-binding guidance released in mid-June alerts district officials to language in SB 150 that, KDE says, indicates schools have a choice of whether to not teach about human sexuality in kindergarten through grade 5, or to not provide instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in any grade. In essence, schools could do one or the other, but aren’t required to do both.
At issue, according to Glass, is specific wording in the bill that uses the conjunction “or” between those two mandates and not “and.”
“It’s what the law says,” Glass says. “It’s clear that the legislators made an error here.”
That interpretation drew swift rebukes from Republicans who backed the legislation. Senator Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), who was primary sponsor of SB 150, says Glass is making an “absurd effort to skirt state law.”
“We’re looking at bureaucratic activism at its finest,” says Wise.
Wise says lawmakers can easily change that conjunction during the 2024 General Assembly session. Until then, he contends the legislative intent of the law is clear and to assume otherwise is “nitpicking” the language. He says initial guidance on SB 150 issued by KDE in mid-April was correct, and he questions why the department suddenly changed course.
“All you’ve done is confuse school districts, you’ve confused superintendents,” says Wise. “If I’m a school district, I am following the law. I’m not following the guidance that was put out there by the Kentucky Department of Education.”
David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation of Kentucky, which endorsed SB 150, says the new guidance encourages districts to not follow the law. He contends this is a continuation of politicized actions taken by Commissioner Glass.
“Unfortunately, the KDE is once again giving in to demands of LGBTQ advocates who have been demanding that SB 150 not be followed really from the moment it was first passed,” says Walls. “It’s pretty clear what’s going on here.”
Glass disputes that accusation, saying the updated guidance came after attorneys for local school districts alerted KDE to the language issue. Rather than tell districts what to do, he says the guidance warns school officials about potential issues in the law so that superintendents can decide the best course of action for their students, district, and community. Glass says the conjunction question is only one area where districts could encounter problems with implementing SB 150.
“We’ve got conflicts with best practice, we’ve conflicts with federal law, we’ve conflicts with possible constitutional issues,” says Glass. “We’re going to have to see how this rolls out over the next couple of years to see what (legal) cases emerge.”
The Debate over Sex Education in Schools
The language snafu comes as no surprise to opponents of SB 150.
“Of course, they made mistakes because nobody read it, they didn’t debate it, they didn’t know what was in it,” says Chris Hartman, executive director of The Fairness Campaign.
The version of SB 150 that ultimately passed was a “Frankenstein monster of anti-fairness bills,” according to Hartman. He says it resulted from the hasty merger of the original Senate Bill 150 and another measure on gender-affirming care, House Bill 470. When the House measure stalled, lawmakers combined the two bills using what’s called a House Committee Substitute that was attached to SB 150. The updated Senate version passed both chambers in one day with nearly every Republican in the legislature voting for it. SB 150 received yea votes from only one Democrat in both the House and Senate.
Richard Nelson, founder and executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, which supports the legislation, says nothing in the final version of SB 150 was new to lawmakers or the public. He says proposals on gender transition services have been considered for three years in Frankfort. The debate over bathroom use by trans students dates back to 2015, he says.
“Our schools should not be a place where gender-identity activism and sexual orientation is introduced at a very young grade,” says Nelson. “This is the thing that parents are upset about, and this is what the legislature responded to.”
Opponents argue that still doesn’t justify pushing the merged bill to final passage on a single day. That day, March 16, was the last day before the veto period. Had SB 150 been passed after that, lawmakers could not have overridden a veto by Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat. Instead, the legislature passed the bill before the veto period deadline, Beshear vetoed the measure on March 24, and the General Assembly voted to override that veto on March 29.
Rebecca Blankenship, executive director of Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky, says that rush led to the language problem with the section on school instruction of human sexuality.
“My advice to Sen. Wise would be not to write [legislation] the night before he passes it like a drunk college student banging out a paper,” says Blankenship.
While conservatives allege a far-left bias in Glass’ leadership of the state’s public school system, Blankenship says she doubts KDE is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ children.
“The first round of guidance about Senate Bill 150 had gone significantly beyond, in my view, the language of the law by requiring that schools end gay-straight alliances and other LGBT after-school clubs,” says Blankenship.
As for the public-school mandates in SB 150, Blankenship says she opposes how the legislation conflates LGBTQ identity with sexually explicit content. She says that kind of material has no place in schools, whether it depicts straight or gay sex. She also fears what lawmakers might try to ban next. If human sexuality shouldn’t be taught in schools, she asks, would such instruction by churches or community groups be next?
Wise says legislators focused on school curricula because parents expressed concerns about what their children are learning. At a time when Kentucky students still lag in key academic indicators, Wise argues schools should be focused on the basics.
“Getting back to reading, writing and arithmetic and not about politics of a certain agenda being pushed down certain people,” says Wise. “They’re not for it.”
Provisions on Gender-Affirming Care
Another controversial portion of SB 150 bans the practice of gender-affirming care for minors. Such care assists an individual who wishes to transition from their birth gender to one they prefer and includes psychological counseling, puberty-blocking drugs, hormone replacement therapy, and surgical procedures.
“When it comes to gender dysphoric youth, I think that the most loving thing that you can do is to help them align with their born, biological sex,” says Nelson. “It is not to give them high doses of hormone therapy, it is not to steer them towards transition surgery.”
Proponents of the ban contend children aren’t mature enough to understand the consequences of pursuing a gender transition. But Harman says minors can’t decide themselves to receive gender-affirming care. He says it only happens with permission of the parents and after extensive counseling with mental health professionals and consultations with pediatric endocrinologists.
“This is proven safe and effective, and medically necessary treatment and supported by every single major medical association in the United States,” says Hartman.
LBGTQ groups support bans on gender-transition surgeries for minors, according to Blankenship. She adds that those procedures aren’t currently happening in Kentucky. As for the use of medications in gender-affirming care, Blankenship says hormone replacement therapies started in the 1930s, and the first use of puberty blocking drugs in trans youth occurred in the 1980s.
“It’s a shame that we’ve cut off all the medical options that families have to keep their kids safe and healthy,” says Blankenship. “Kentucky’s families deserve better, and this is not it.”
Beyond any legal challenges, the political debate over SB 150 is likely to continue. A Mason-Dixon poll taken in February before the legislation passed showed that 71 percent of Kentucky voters opposed the ban on gender-affirming care. Opponents of the measure also fear the stigmatism and mental health impacts the ban and the heated debate over it will have on vulnerable young people.
Wise, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor with Kelly Craft in the Republican primary, says the issue will continue to be prominent in Frankfort. The Craft-Wise campaign drew sharp criticism for a comment Craft made in early May during a telephone town hall when she said that, if elected, “we will not have transgenders in our school system.” (Craft placed third in that primary.)
In campaigning across the state, Wise says he heard from many Kentuckians pleased with SB 150.
“I think that’s still going to be a big issue… as we go forward with this governor’s election in November,” says Wise. “This is not going away.”