New Florida Education Bill Protecting Parental Rights Safeguards Children, Catholic Experts Say

Critics claim it harms youth who identify as ‘LGBTQ+,’ but the experts counter that young children should not be exposed to ideas that are not developmentally appropriate for their age.

The ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill was passed by the Florida Senate on March 8 and is awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature.
The ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill was passed by the Florida Senate on March 8 and is awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. (photo: KMH Photovideo / Shutterstock)

Florida’s newly passed education bill is facing backlash from critics who claim that it harms youth who identify as “LGBTQ+,” but experts say it will safeguard young children by protecting parental discretion when it comes to sexuality and gender.

“It is harmful for children to be exposed to concepts regarding sexuality before they are developmentally ready and without their parents’ knowledge and consent,” said Andrew Sodergren, clinical psychologist with Ruah Woods Psychological Services

“This bill aims to further safeguard child well-being and parental rights,” Sodergren told the Register, “by preventing young children from being exposed to notions of sexual orientation and gender identity that are not developmentally appropriate for them nor in accord with God’s design.”

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill was passed by the Florida Senate on March 8 and is awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. 

The bill promises to “reinforce fundamental rights of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing [and] control of their children,” according to the Florida government’s website, and to ensure that parents are informed about decisions that could affect “a student’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being.” 

The new legislation also “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in grades kindergarten through third grade.

“It’s a legislation about transparency so that the parents can understand what their children are being exposed to,” said Deacon Patrick Lappert, a board-certified plastic surgeon and deacon for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.

Young children “are incapable of managing” information of a sexual nature that is not age-appropriate, said Lappert, who also serves as a chaplain for Courage International.

Prepubescence is the time in which children learn the foundations for what the Catholic Church refers to as “chaste love,” Lappert said, by developing friendships with “other children that look like them” — boys with boys and girls with girls — “that are not sexual in nature.”

“That’s a very important part of human development,” Lappert stressed. “For that to get polluted by the idea that profound love is sexual in nature is a real danger to children that age, because it sexualizes them before they have any capacity to understand that.” 


Parental Rights and Cross-Sex Self-Identification

The new bill coincides with a lawsuit that centers on the suicide attempts of a 12-year-old Florida girl who had been receiving affirmation in a transgender self-identification from school counselors without the knowledge or consent of her parents. 

The parents, who are Catholic, were informed of these meetings only after their daughter had made two attempts at suicide by hanging over the course of two days.

“Rather than respecting the parents’ values in this regard, there is a tendency to undermine them out of a desire to help the child according to what the professionals believe is in their best interest,” Sodergren said.

This “help” can take the form of encouraging a child to socially transition to the opposite gender, take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, and seek surgical interventions, he said. 

Dr. Michelle Cretella, Catholic Medical Association member and pediatrician, listed the long-term consequences of the hormonal and surgical interventions involved in gender transition. These include permanent sterility, anxiety, depression, impaired memory, brittle bones, blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer “and other chronic illnesses.”

Cretella told the Register that school staff who encourage a transgender self-identification are “guilty of psychological abuse” for putting children at risk for embarking on such a dangerous medical path.

Although reports do not indicate interventions beyond encouragement to socially transition, parents of the 12-year-old girl claim that school officials called her by her male name and pronouns, which led to bullying. 

“From a Catholic standpoint, this treatment approach is gravely problematic because it entails a rejection of one’s God-given sexual identity and progressive mutilation of the human body,” Sodergren said. “In other words, we believe this treatment approach is inherently harmful.” 

“To propose this to young people as a solution to their struggles — even if motivated by a desire to help — is completely unacceptable. To do so without the consent or knowledge of parents is diabolical.”

Activist groups have condemned the bill for its “vague” language and allege that prohibiting teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender in the classroom will result in “further stigmatizing LGBTQ+ people and isolating LGBTQ+ kids.”

“Advocacy groups have public-school teachers, counselors, school nurses convinced that any such presentation is some sort of natal cross-sex gender-identity issue,” Deacon Lappert said. 

“Essentially, what they’re claiming is that a school nurse, or a schoolteacher, has greater insight into the life of their child” than a parent, he added. “There are so many more things at play in the life of a child that a parent would know vastly better than a schoolteacher who sees that child for five hours a day.”


‘A Huge Shift’

Moreover, the suggestion that school staff, rather than parents, can make decisions for children regarding sexual matters is a recent shift in the recognition of parental rights, suggests Dr. Barbara Golder, a physician, attorney and bioethicist. 

“Historically, parents have great leeway in deciding care for their children, even when others strongly disagree with their choices and even when they involve serious medical matters,” Golder told the Register. 

“Like it or not, parents have a broad right to make decisions about their children’s care, even when others would make other choices, and even when there are ‘better’ ways to go about it, especially when it involves something as fundamental and intimate as sex,” she said. 

In cases where a child is legitimately endangered by his or her parents, there are “well-defined” processes for removing “a child from parental custody,” which “provide a way for parents to react to challenges to their parenting.”

A case like the one involving the 12-year-old girl, however, “differs in that the processes are not clearly defined, not above board, and actively exclude parents,” Golder said. “That’s a huge shift and one we best not tolerate lightly.”

“Perhaps the most powerful contributor to a child’s well-being is the quality of his relationship with his parents,” said Sodergren. “When schools encourage secrecy between children and their parents or undermine the values that parents wish to impart, they are endangering children’s mental health.”

“When parents are not informed and involved in the care of their child who is experiencing gender incongruence, this does damage to the parent-child relationship, thus endangering the child’s mental health further,” Sodergren stressed. “In addition, it burdens children with carrying secrets from their parents and managing significant struggles without being able to rely on their parents for help.”

A growing number of U.S. states have been experiencing similar clashes between parents and schools over the question of affirming “LGBTQ+” self-identification without parental knowledge or consent. 

Two pairs of parents filed a lawsuit in November 2021 against a Wisconsin school district for allowing children to change their names and pronouns without parental consent. 

In January 2022, a California mother filed a suit claiming that teachers manipulated her seventh-grade daughter to change her gender identity. 

Meanwhile, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, recently cited his concerns regarding the dramatic increase of gender clinics, from zero in 2006 to more than 60 in 2021. 

“Children especially are harmed when they are told that they can ‘change’ their sex, further, when they are given hormones that will affect their development and possibly render them infertile as adults,” he wrote in a Feb. 25 column

“Parents deserve better guidance on these important decisions, and we urge medical institutions to honor the basic medical principle of ‘first, do no harm.’”


Gender Dysphoria and Social Contagion?

When assessing the cross-sex self-identification of minors, experts note a distinction between prepubescent children — the general age range to which the bill applies — and post-pubescent minors. 

The prepubescent demographic generally applies to young boys who self-identify as girls, said Deacon Lappert. 

“If you follow those boys through to early adolescence, 80% of them will stop thinking of themselves in their cross-sex persona,” he explained. As these boys then progress into early adulthood, 92% of them will no longer identify as female.

However, Deacon Lappert warns, “If you affirm them in cross-sex self-identification, nearly 100% of them will persist, particularly if it comes to the point of puberty blockade and cross-sex hormones.”

The post-pubescent demographic for children with a cross-sex self-identification presents a different picture, consisting predominantly of girls, a significant percentage of whom fall within the autism spectrum. 

This latter demographic is also marked by the 5,000% increase of adolescent girls and young women being diagnosed with gender dysphoria over the past five years, Deacon Lappert said.

A 2017 study by psychiatrist Lisa Littman describes this phenomena as “rapid onset gender dysphoria” and observes a concurrence with peer-group influence, either in person or online. 

Deacon Lappert describes cases of social “outbreaks” of gender dysphoria, “where all of a sudden you have three or four young girls, maybe in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, who suddenly have cross-sex self-identification, where they had no such issues before.”

Experts suggest that diagnosing women with gender dysphoria misses the mark on underlying mental-health issues that are really at play. 

“The vast majority of adolescents who present with transgender belief have long-standing emotional and psychological illnesses that predate the onset of their ‘trans’ belief,” said Cretella. 

“In many cases, the teen may subconsciously develop a ‘trans identity’ as a coping mechanism,” she said. 

On the distinction between prepubescent and post-pubescent cross-sex self-identification, Deacon Lappert said: “Anybody who claims to fully understand transgender and gender dysphoria in children and thinks that it’s a single entity, and that it’s well-understood, is misleading you.” 


Supporting Young People

When approached by a young person who experiences cross-sex self-identification, Sodergren advises against cramming “the faith down his or throat,” but encourages them to “explore questions around their relationship with God and their attitudes toward creation, including the human body.”

“Struggling with one’s sexual identity entails — on some level — struggling with accepting our creatureliness,” he said. “What does it mean to be a creature who receives everything — even our very being — from God as an unmerited gift? What is it that makes it hard for me to trust God’s design?”

“What is the difference between collaborating with God’s work of creation and usurping his role so that we can remake the world — even our very bodies — according to our design and after our image?”

Sodergren stressed the importance of the Church as “a place of acceptance and support.” 

“As disciples of Christ, we need to understand that some people need ongoing, patient support as they strive to receive the sexual identity revealed by the body as a gift from God,” he said. 

“Because this process may be difficult for some people, we have a duty to protect young people from influences that may make it harder. We also have to remember that love must be based in truth.”