Arizona schools chief

Kathy Hoffman, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, asked the House Education Committee in January to repeal laws that govern how homosexuality can and cannot be taught in high school.

PHOENIX — State legislative leaders are moving to amend or repeal a controversial law that prohibits instruction that “promotes” homosexuality in Arizona’s K-12 schools following the filing of a federal lawsuit.

And Attorney General Mark Brnovich is not going to defend what has come to be known as the state’s “no promo homo” law in the suit, which contends it is unconstitutional.

In a letter Tuesday to legislative leaders, O.H. Skinner, the solicitor general, pointed out that the lawsuit filed in federal court by Equality Arizona and others names only the Arizona superintendent of public instruction and the state Board of Education as defendants. The challengers do not sue the state itself.

Schools chief Kathy Hoffman already has made it clear she opposes the law, though spokesman Stefan Swiat said his boss has not yet met with her state-assigned attorney to formally decide a course of action.

And the state board is set to meet Monday to consider whether its members are interested in trying to keep the law on the books.

Skinner, whose job it generally is to defend the state when it is sued, told House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann he is informing them of the decision, made by Brnovich, to give them “adequate time and information to make an informed decision” on whether the Legislature wants to get involved in the case and defend the law itself.

In the letter, Skinner said that the decision by Brnovich not to get involved does not keep the Legislature from intervening in the case “to present its own unique views and defenses” of the law.

But it is unlikely to get that far.

Fann press aide Mike Philipsen said his boss is asking the Senate’s attorneys whether it makes sense to try to defend the law.

Bowers, for his part, apparently has made that decision already.

“Details are still being negotiated,” said spokesman Matt Specht. “But Speaker Bowers expects the Legislature to revise current law to address the issues raised in the lawsuit.”

At the heart of the fight are state laws that deal with teaching students about AIDS and HIV.

One section prohibits instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” or “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style.” Challengers say that is unconstitutional because it singles out a class of students — those who are gay — for negative treatment based on their sexual orientation.

Potentially more problematic is another provision that forbids teachers from saying that there are safe methods of homosexual sex, yet have no such restriction on teaching heterosexual safe sex. The lawsuit filed last month in federal court says that deprives LGBTQ students of equal education opportunities.

Brnovich spokesman Ryan Anderson said that his boss has not reached a firm conclusion on whether the challenged sections are legally defensible. But he said there is reason to believe that the statute “is probably susceptible to being struck down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Anderson sidestepped questions of what it would take to fix the law.

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“We don’t make policy,” he said, adding it is up to lawmakers to decide what is best. “That may include repealing portions of the statute or replacing portions of the statute with language that is scientifically based and is acceptable to all parties.”

That issue of “scientifically based” addresses not just what is in the federal court lawsuit. It also has been one of the talking points of foes of the law who said it is not just bad advice but inaccurate advice to say that there is no safe method of homosexual sex.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, has been trying to repeal the law for years. But he has yet to get a hearing on his proposal.

The issue took on new life in February when Hoffman, giving her first State of Education speech since taking office a month earlier, told lawmakers that there needs to be greater emphasis on “creating an inclusive environment that supports children from all backgrounds.” That, she said, means at the outset recognizing that students come from all types of families, even those with two moms or two dads.

And Hoffman said educators also must consider students who are more likely to be bullied and harassed. She said that includes students in the LGBTQ community.

“A simple step we can take to help reduce discrimination and bullying for these students is to repeal the ‘no promo homo’ law,” Hoffman said, saying it “contributes to an unsafe school environment.”

And the schools chief said the policy enshrined in the legislation “is not just outdated; it has always been harmful and wrong.”

That was followed a month later by the lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Equality Arizona and an unnamed Tucson student who is gay. The legal papers say the law, adopted nearly three decades ago, “facially discriminates against non-heterosexual students on the basis of sexual orientation and places them in an expressly disfavored class.”

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