With Lawmakers Cracking Down on Parental Rights, California Families Weigh Options Amid Looming ‘Impasse’
As LGBTQ themes surface across school curriculum, Kathleen Domingo of the California Catholic Conference explains why opting-out may no longer be possible for Catholic families that want to safeguard their children.
Hundreds of parental-rights activists gathered at the California Statehouse in Sacramento on Aug. 21 to register their opposition to proposed legislation that would curtail the rights of parents in public schools and restrict the power of local school boards to chart their own course on the culture wars.
The large rally, organized in part by California Family Council, marked an escalating battle between the Democrat-controlled state government and several conservative-leaning local school boards that are sounding the alarm on policies that embrace and promote a gender-transition-affirming model for children struggling with gender dysphoria and celebrate LGBTQ trailblazers as state heroes.
Over the past month, Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened to impose hefty fines on public-school districts that oppose the adoption of a new “inclusive” social-studies textbook. Meanwhile, a school board president ordered the forcible removal of Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, who showed up at a school board meeting to express his objections to their position on LGBTQ-themed education. Thurmond helped craft A.B. 1078, a recent bill that would fine districts that discriminate against students of color or LGBTQ+ students, by banning books that deal with sensitive topics involving race or sexuality.
Yesterday, following the parental-rights rally at the State Capitol, Kathleen Domingo, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference (CCC), spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the growing “impasse” in California and the lack of options available to religious families in the public system.
Hundreds of parents-rights activists gathered today in Sacramento to protest proposed legislation they say would restrict the role of mothers and fathers in the care and upbringing of their children. Why did they travel to Sacramento to lobby legislators?
There was a really good turnout today, and the people who had traveled here were working on four different bills related to parental rights, especially around LGBTQ issues for children.
After the rally, people went inside for a hearing and personally testified.
Protesters targeted two proposed bills they claim would “silence us, the parents”: Assembly Bill 1078, which would raise the threshold for school boards to ban books, from a simple majority to two-thirds; and Senate Bill 596, which would fine those who “substantially” disrupt a school board meeting or harass school employees. But they have also flagged other bills that mandate a gender-affirming model for supporting minors struggling with gender dysphoria.
A.B. 5 calls for the Department of Education to develop a training course for school employees on “LGBTQ cultural competency.”
- A.B. 665 permits children 12 and older to receive “mental health treatment or counseling on an outpatient basis,” including placement in group homes, without parental consent.
- A. B. 957 directs judges ruling in custody disputes to consider a parent’s affirmation of a child’s gender identity or expression.
Yes, A.B. 957 asks judges to put their finger on the scales [in favor of the parent backing gender-affirming care, such as pronouns matching the child’s preferred gender identity, puberty blockers and other interventions].
But A.B. 1078 [the bill proposing a two-thirds majority to bar controversial books] was the focus of today’s hearing.
Protesters were also concerned about S.B. 596, which would allow the state superintendent of public instruction to take over the role of locally elected school board members in making decisions about curriculum. That’s why so many people came to the capitol.
The California Catholic Conference has not taken a position on bills [that require] affirming policies in the classroom, or bar harassment of teachers [that support gender-affirming. policies].
We don’t want to see anyone bullied or harmed, so we are not always opposed to “sensitivity training.” And teachers have complained that they’re being verbally assaulted and are concerned for their safety.
But the protesters do oppose these bills, as well. They are part of an overarching discussion about parents being removed from very critical conversations about their children, specifically when it comes to gender dysphoria.
Could you step back and sketch out a big-picture view of this accelerated attack on parental rights?
What we are seeing is a very well-organized and quick-moving effort in the legislature to prioritize gender-transition-affirming policies at every step of the way. What we’re also seeing is a really concerted effort to remove parents from [making decisions about their child’s welfare and believe] parents cannot be trusted [to exercise good judgment] and avoid harming their children, and so the Legislature needs to step in to protect children from their parents. These bills remove parents from conversations with health care professionals and with educators.
I should mention that we’ve been working all year on another bill that says: If you want to be a foster parent in the state of California, you have to be essentially willing and able to do any LGBTQ intervention that your foster child [requires].
What happens to proposed legislation that goes against this trend?
When Republican Assembly Member Bill Essayli introduced a bill earlier this year that would have given public schools three days to notify parents in writing, should their child request a change in pronouns, he was told that the bill was [deemed] too harmful for a conversation on the floor; a committee hearing about that bill would also be so harmful to trans-identifying people that it couldn’t be entertained.
So Essayli shopped it around to different local school boards, and four different school districts in the state of California have adopted this policy.
Of course, these school districts are being investigated by our Attorney General Rob Bonta, by the governor’s office, and by the superintendent of public instruction.
Recently, there have been angry public confrontations between local school board members and top state officials, Attorney General Bonta and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
A couple of school boards have tried to remove [social science] curriculum from the classroom that dealt with Harvey Milk, [the late gay-rights advocate] in some way. The superintendent has come [to board meetings] and said that that’s not allowed. The superintendent is going to insert himself very strongly into the way that school boards are run. [Several contested bills] like Senate Bill 596 would make it much, much easier to remove school board members [that state officials] don’t like. They would come down very hard on people who are trying to be just rational and reasonable.
What happens when you and other CCC staff try to engage state legislators who back the gender-affirming model?
We’ve testified on some of these bills this year, and we find that it’s very difficult to have a reasonable conversation. There was not a lot of rational argument from the other side, on why they are rushing to medicalize students. They just keep repeating: “We must do this, because if you don’t affirm, then your child will die by suicide.”
That is the argument that shuts down any kind of conversation.
We point to studies that [challenge this argument]. The first is a very important longitudinal study, which says that up to 98% of children who claim some kind of gender dysphoria will ultimately accept their birth sex and choose not to transition if they are met with a watchful waiting approach, which affirms the experience and concerns of the child but does not include medical intervention, and does not encourage them to adopt new pronouns.
Watchful waiting is a standard of care for gender non-conforming children, especially young children, approved by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). This caring and open approach does not require social transition to affirm the unique needs of a child, and studies show between 80% and 98% of children and adolescents with gender dysphoria will eventually become comfortable with their natal sex.
The other point I also make is that there are no compelling and conclusive studies that show any difference in suicidality between children who transition and those who don’t.
So when we go have these conversations with legislators, we’re asking for a reasonable position: Maybe you don’t allow an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old, or a 16-year-old start medically transitioning. Maybe we just pause a little. Maybe we affirm that child’s beauty and their uniqueness, and help them come to understand who they are, and how wonderful they are — without needing to start them on a path of lifetime medicalization and infertility.
We can also point to European studies that [challenge the affirmative-care model], but there’s just no desire whatsoever to entertain any differences of opinion on these topics.
[Democratic legislators say]: “We don’t agree with your studies. We don’t believe in your studies.”
School-choice options would offer California parents solid alternatives to the public system, but California has not taken that path.
Other states are having some success with school choice. But it’s very, very difficult here in California to overcome the power of the teachers’ unions and have any kind of traction on this issue.
What are you hearing from Catholic parents who have children in the public schools?
Traditionally, we have helped Catholic parents and other parents in public schools opt their children out of sex-ed curricula and coursework that is incompatible with their values. The problem now is that the curriculum is changing, and it’s changing due to legislative fiat that includes LGBTQ studies in every academic subject. Parents can’t opt their children out [of math or language arts], so they are very concerned. There’s no transparency, so they don’t know what is being taught. And there’s no ability to have a dialogue, to find out what’s being taught. A lot of it is really teacher-to-teacher or what the principal wants to do.
School boards are supposed to be advocates for parents, but, now, parental rights are under fire, and in a polarized society, it is hard to reach a consensus on what families want.
Parental involvement at the local level has always been part of the democratic process. There has always been strong support for people of faith to get involved, exercise the principle of subsidiarity, and run for the school board. As a result, there are a lot of Catholics, Christians, and LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] folks in these positions.
They represent a whole group of families and students in their school district.
But, now, the superintendent and the governor are saying, “Sorry, if you don’t follow what we are telling you to do, then we’re going to take you off the school board.”
So, yes, Catholic, Christian, LDS parents, and just parents of goodwill are asking us: “What do we do now?” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” This is literally unfolding in the last two months, and we don’t know how it’s going to shake out.
We’re at an impasse. If this is the curriculum that is being mandated, if local school boards are not able to choose [an alternative], and if parents are not able to opt out, then the only other recourse is home schooling, or private school, which is not accessible for everyone, or leave the state. I hope people stand up and take notice that this is not business as usual.