FILE - Florida State Capitol

The Florida State Capitol buildings (Old Capitol in foreground) in Tallahassee.  

(The Center Square) – A new bill that would ban critical race theory in Florida schools and corporations passed its first hurdle Wednesday.

The bill makes good on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pledge to ban CRT from being taught in Florida schools and in the workplace, although neither it nor its companion bill in the Senate specifically mentions CRT by name. DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act also seeks to protect employees from CRT training in the workplace and allows employees and parents to sue those that violate the ban.

The bill was filed by state Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs. An adjunct professor at Broward College and speaker pro tempore of the Florida House, Avila introduced House Bill 7, called “Individual Freedom.” It passed the Florida House Judiciary Committee Wednesday by a vote of 14 to 7. It’s companion bill, SB148, is headed to the Senate Rules Committee next week.

“We aren’t defined by just one external trait, and we must ensure that no Floridian falls victim to harmful stereotypes based solely on a characteristic they were born with,” Avila said in a statement. The bill will ensure “every Floridian has the right to learn and earn in an environment that values the uniqueness of each individual while acknowledging the American view that we were all created equally.”

HB 7 highlights “several shared principles of individual freedom to guide instruction and curriculum,” including “no individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex; no race is inherently superior to another race; and no individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, disability or sex.”

The bill authorizes teachers to facilitate classroom discussion about how individual freedoms have been infringed upon and what led to these infringements. But HB7 sets guidelines for how this can be done, including the requirement that “lessons and textbooks must uphold the shared principles of individual freedom and not indoctrinate students with a particular point of view. Nothing in the bill bans the teaching of historical facts about slavery, sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination.”

The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, opposes the bill. It said in statement posted on social media, “House Bill 7 serves only to undermine students’ education and further fray the fabric that holds us together as Americans.”

Another group opposing the bill, the Florida Student Power Network, argues it “is not a bill for individual freedom.” In a Facebook post, it refers to the bill as “the Destruction of Education Act. … Let’s call it what it is because it will destroy the k-20 system in Florida. We need to stop this bill before it’s too late.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls lauded the bill and its passage in committee. He said, “Too often, we’re seeing movements ignore the fact that we are all, first and foremost, unique individuals worthy of dignity and respect. These movements have tried to hijack the important conversation about race and use it as a pretext to attack institutions – ranging from capitalism to the very idea of objective truth in the hard sciences. They want to use the sins of the past to shut down dissent in the present. HB 7 ensures Florida’s workplaces and schools are places where we can have healthy dialogues about race or diversity without losing sight that we are all, first and foremost, unique individuals.”

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “It is important to talk about how individual freedoms have been infringed by racism, sexism, slavery, and segregation. Equally important is the discussion around how our shared values of believing that all people are created equal and that no group is better than any other helped us make progress away from these dark times in our history and overturn unjust laws.”

The bill addresses unlawful employment practices to ensure that no worker “is forced to endure indoctrination in ideologies that espouse race and sex stereotyping.” It also clarifies that unlawful discrimination by employers is outlined in the Florida Civil Rights Act, “which includes required workplace trainings that compel workers to believe concepts contradictory to the principles of individual freedom.”

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, opposes the bill, describing it as an attempt by the Legislature to act as “the thought police.”

She said it’s “a classic example of a false equivalency, where we’re saying that individual freedom is the same as not feeling ‘discomfort, guilt or anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race,’” quoting from part of the bill. But, “Individual freedom is not the same thing as being free from feelings,” she added. “Those two things don’t equate.”