Federal judge temporarily blocks parts of Iowa state law that bans books and curriculum discussing LGBTQ issues

By Sara Smart and Alaa Elassar, CNN

(CNN) — A federal judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of two parts of an Iowa state law that would ban books and curriculum from schools that discuss gender identity or sexual orientation.

US District Judge Stephen Locher’s preliminary injunction was filed on Friday and blocks the enforcement of two provisions of the law – the book bans and curriculum restrictions – which was set to go into effect on January 1.

Locher called the ban “incredibly broad” and noted the law has already resulted in the removal of hundreds of books from Iowa libraries. These books include Pulitzer Prize winning books and nonfiction history books, many that appear on Advanced Placement exams and “even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault,” according to the ruling. The restrictions likely violated the First Amendment, the ruling said.

The law bans books in public school libraries that contain a “description or visual depiction of a sex act” and also restricts education about gender identity and sexual orientation. It also requires schools to notify parents if their child asks to use a new name or pronoun.

The two provisions blocked by Judge Locher are the book ban and education restrictions relating to gender identity or sexual orientation. The ruling did not block schools being forced to notify parents if a child asks to use a new name or pronoun.

Two lawsuits were filed against the Iowa law, one by ACLU Iowa in November and another by publisher Penguin Random House in early December.

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“We are glad our clients, Iowa families, and students will be able to continue the school year free from the harms caused by these parts of this unconstitutional law,” said Lambda Legal senior attorney Nathan Maxwell in a statement published by ACLU Iowa. “This decision sends a strong message to the state that efforts to ban books based on LGBTQ+ content, or target speech that sends a message of inclusion to Iowa LGBTQ+ students cannot stand.”

Governor Kim Reynolds, who signed the bill in May 2023, said in a statement she was “extremely disappointed” in the ruling. “Instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation has no place in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms.” she added.

Iowa is just one of several Republican-led states to pass laws strengthening what advocates often describe as “parental rights” over the past few years. Critics argue the controversial movement is aimed at limiting the rights of LGBTQ and other marginalized students.

The Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization, likened Iowa’s parental rights law to legislation enacted in Florida that opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The Florida law banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom and set off a social and political firestorm.

Similar laws restricting what books are allowed in libraries have recently gone into effect in other states, including, Missouri and Utah.

“Vague language in the laws regarding how they should be implemented, as well as the inclusion of potential punishments for educators who violate them, have combined to yield a chilling effect,” according to a report published in April by PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend free expression and tracks book bans.

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Laws like the one in Florida give incentives to teachers, media specialists and school administrators to proactively remove books from shelves, the report said.

About one-third of the titles banned are books about race or racism or feature characters of color. About 26% of the titles have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

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