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Pennsylvania Senate passes bill opponents worry targets books about LGBTQ+ and marginalized people

HARRISBURG — A bill passed the GOP-controlled state Senate to require Pennsylvania parents to opt in their children to access book deemed sexually explicit after more than an hour of passionate floor debate Tuesday.

The bill passed 29-21, with objection from most Democrats. It now goes onto the Democratic-controlled House, where it faces an uncertain future. The bill passed the chamber, along with another that regulated how teachers communicate with parents about curricula, and drew opposition from the state’s largest teachers union.

Representing Butler County, state Sens. Scott Hutchinson, R-21st, and Elder Vogel, R-47th voted in favor of the bill.

The move is part of a larger nationwide effort of expanding parental oversight of schools, which saw a swell of energy in Florida last year. In the months since, other state Legislatures have taken up similar legislation that opponents say specifically targets LGBTQ+ and students of color.

In Pennsylvania, the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, said the bill was a “very measured approach to addressing what was rapidly becoming a contentious national issue.” He rejected that it was an attempt to ban books, attack the LGBTQ+ community or censor anyone.

One Democrat, Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County, agreed, saying policies like this draw heated, vocal support on both sides of the issue.

“It’s tearing our communities apart,” she said. “That’s why this General Assembly needs to lead. It needs to set forth a statewide policy that balances those radically different viewpoints of parents on both sides of this issue.”

Under the Pennsylvania measure, a similar version of which also passed the chamber last year, districts would identify and list books that contain any sexual material — used in classroom instruction or available in the library — and require parents sign an opt-in form to grant permission for their children to access some books.

It defines sexually explicit as showing “acts of masturbation, sexual intercourse, sexual bestiality or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or, if the person is a female, breast.”

The measure would also prohibit depictions of nudity in books for students in kindergarten through grade eight.

Opponents said the legislation would ultimately censor voices, and said books available in school are vetted by educators. They said parents already have the ability to control what their children read.

“Exploring human relationships, sex and love are some of the most challenging and rewarding obstacles that we will face in life,” said Democratic Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, of Montgomery County. “And we need the right education and materials available to ensure people can explore those spaces safely and with the right knowledge to be able to interact with the world around them compassionately.”

Another bill — a similar version of which was vetoed by former Gov. Tom Wolf last year — that considered what it calls “classroom transparency” also passed the chamber, 28-22. That measure would require schools to post online the title or link for every textbook used, syllabi and course summaries and the state academic standards for the course.

Democrats said schools already allow for parents to review curriculum, and the legislation would be needlessly burdensome on districts.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, said there was “nothing nefarious” about the bill’s intent.

Both measures were opposed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

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