The ACLU and other law firms sue Washington state seeking to prevent 'Parents' Bill of Rights' from taking effect

click to enlarge The ACLU and other law firms sue Washington state seeking to prevent 'Parents' Bill of Rights' from taking effect
Initiative 2081 passed through the Legislature with bipartisan support.

At the start of the year, Washington lawmakers were faced with a slate of six citizen initiatives. For much of the legislative session, the initiatives remained untouched by legislators. But about a week before the session ended, lawmakers held public hearings for half of the initiatives and quickly passed them into state law.

The three approved initiatives will restore certain police pursuit standards (I-2113), prevent the state from imposing income tax (I-2111) and create a "Parents' Bill of Rights" relating to their child's public education (I-2081). The other three initiatives will appear on the ballot this November.

The Parents' Bill of Rights includes things like the right to access their child's medical records at will or their ability to opt their children out of any student engagements that include questions about the "child's sexual experiences or attractions." Many of the rights mirror existing parental rights in Washington.

In March, I-2081 passed the state Senate unanimously. Around that time, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, told the Inlander that the decision was meant to give the Legislature more control over the initiative and to protect Washington's LGBTQ+ youth from a months-long campaign if it were to go to the ballot for a public vote this fall.

On May 23, just two weeks before the approved initiatives were set to take effect, the ACLU, Legal Voice and the Q Law Foundation of Washington filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court to prevent I-2081 from going into effect.

The suit's plaintiffs include seven Western Washington nonprofit organizations, two impacted individuals and the South Whidbey School District.

The complaint claims that the initiative would cause harm to the communities that the plaintiffs serve and that it's unconstitutional. Additionally, the lawsuit argues that the parental rights outlined in the initiative are "duplicative of long-standing established rights of parents."

"Initiative 2081 not only harms Washington's public school students, it violates the State Constitution because it fails to disclose how it revises and affects existing laws," the complaint states.

For example, a current state law (RCW 13.32A.082) requires youth centers to notify the youth's parents within 72 hours of their arrival if they're there without parental permission — unless "compelling reasons exist not to notify parents." In those cases, shelters are required to inform the Department of Children Youth and Families instead. In contrast, I-2081 would require the student's school to inform parents if their child is taken from school to one of those shelters — without any exceptions.

"We already have state laws that protect student privacy," says Julia Marks, an attorney with Legal Voice, a nonprofit that fights for LGBTQ+ and women's rights. "It undermines all these protections and we are concerned that students across the state will change their behaviors."

The concern is that for some students, the new law may make it harder to feel safe having confidential conversations about their gender identity or sexuality with their school-based health care providers or educators, particularly when they feel unsafe to do so at home. Marks argues it could also interfere with students' rights to independently consent to certain medical treatments — like reproductive health services.

"We're bringing this lawsuit because we want all students in Washington to be successful," adds Adrien Leavitt, an ACLU staff attorney.

Brian Heywood, the founder of Let's Go Washington — the organization that funded all six initiatives — says this appears to be a concerted effort by the ACLU to circumvent the democratic process.

"The ACLU has made their disdain for the democratic process abundantly clear," Heywood says via email. "They tried to stop our signature-gathering efforts even as hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians were exercising their right to sign the initiatives, and now they're trying to overturn a law that was passed with strong bipartisan support in the Legislature."

The author of the initiatives, state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who is also the chairman of the state GOP, says that the lawsuit seems to be a publicity stunt.

"ACLU Washington damages its reputation and credibility by aligning with a group of radical Left organizations to file an eccentric lawsuit attacking the recently passed Washington Parents' Bill of Rights/Initiative 2081," he tells the Inlander by email.

Leavitt, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, argues that the lawsuit isn't "eccentric," but imperative for LGBTQ+ youth in public schools who he believes will be harmed if the initiative is allowed to go into effect.

"The initiative passed because of deception and confusion, and it will cause life-altering negative outcomes for queer and trans students if it is implemented," he says.

Both Heywood and Walsh called upon state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to defend the initiative.

"We expect Bob Ferguson to uphold his duty within the law to protect the will of the people and shut down this frivolous attempt by the ACLU to deprive parents of their civil liberties," Heywood writes.

Before filing the lawsuit however, the plaintiffs' attorneys asked Ferguson to fight the initiative on behalf of the state's taxpayers. In a May 6 letter, they requested that the attorney general file a complaint to "redress the constitutional infirmities" outlined in their suit.

But a week later, Ferguson's office declined to take any legal action or weigh in on the case's merits.

"We consider litigation at the request of taxpayers in appropriate situations," Ferguson's letter states. "In this instance, we decline to take the actions you request, but do so without expressing any view as to whether your claims may have potential merit."

Legal Voice's Marks says the plaintiffs' team plans to file either a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction requesting the courts put the law on hold while their case moves forward. ♦

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Colton Rasanen

Colton Rasanen is a staff writer for the Inlander covering education, LGBTQ+ affairs, and most recently, arts and culture. He joined the staff in 2023 after working as the managing editor of the Wahpeton Daily News and News Monitor in rural North Dakota.