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Lawsuit seeks to block Iowa law that bans books with sex acts, restricts LGBTQ topics in schools

Waterloo residents Belinda Scarrott and her child Percy Batista-Pedro are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Courtesy of Lambda Legal
Waterloo residents Belinda Scarrott and her child Percy Batista-Pedro are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Eight Iowa students and their families are suing the state to block implementation of a state law that restricts discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools and bans books that describe sex acts.

The ACLU of Iowa and Lambda Legal filed the lawsuitTuesday on behalf of the students and Iowa Safe Schools. They are asking a federal court to declare the law, known as SF496, unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs argue SF496 violates students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and expression, to receive information, and to peaceably assemble.

“The First Amendment does not allow our state or our schools to remove books or issue blanket bans on discussion and material simply because a group of politicians or parents find them offensive,” said Thomas Story, an attorney with the ACLU of Iowa.

They also argue the law violates the 14th Amendment by discriminating against Iowa students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status.

Percy Batista-Pedro, a high school junior from Waterloo, is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“I have experienced harassment in school because of my transgender identity,” he said. “But SF496 and its provisions to shut down open, healthy discussion of LGBTQ issues, and its silencing of students like me, make me fear for my happiness and safety more than ever.”

Batista-Pedro’s mother, Belinda Scarrott, said the law makes life more dangerous for her child, and more terrifying for her.

“This law claims to protect parental rights, but it does the opposite,” she said. “Instead of sending my child to school and assuming he will be safe as every parent of a cisgender straight child does, I spend my days worrying about what potential damage this school day might do to my child’s physical or mental wellbeing.”

While the plaintiffs are asking the court to block the entire wide-ranging law, the legal complaint focuses on three of the most high-profile provisions: the ban on books and school materials that depict or describe a sex act, the ban on instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in Kindergarten through sixth grade, and the requirement for schools to notify parents of a student’s request for gender-affirming accommodations such as using different pronouns.

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the law in May. Schools implemented the law at the beginning of this school year, and the state can start to enforce it in January unless the court prevents that.

The lawsuit names Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education Director McKenzie Snow, and the superintendents and school board members of several school districts as defendants.

Reynolds issued a statement Tuesday in response to the lawsuit.

“Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial,” Reynolds said. “The real controversy is that it exists in elementary schools. Books with graphic depictions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools. If these books were movies, they’d be rated R. The media cannot even air or print excerpts from these books because the content is offensive and inappropriate, yet they promote the narrative that they’re good for kids.”

 Richard, Puck, and Ulrike Carlson of Iowa City are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
ACLU of Iowa
Richard, Puck, and Ulrike Carlson of Iowa City are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that Iowa law already protected kids from obscene materials before SF496 was passed.

Reynolds’ statement did not address the issues raised in the lawsuit about discrimination against LGBTQ students.

The plaintiffs also allege that SF496 is unconstitutionally vague. Even with clarification recently issued by the Iowa Department of Education, the lawsuit says there is still a lot of ambiguity that has led to “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

They said school districts handling book removals in different ways is evidence of that. The plaintiffs also said the law has had a chilling effect on speech related to LGBTQ topics, and they allege school districts have restricted the activities of Genders & Sexualities Alliance student groups as a result.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa will likely schedule a hearing on the request to block the implementation of the law while the lawsuit plays out.

Copyright 2023 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

Katarina Sostaric is an Iowa City based reporter covering Eastern Iowa for Iowa Public Radio.