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ACLU sues Washington to stop 'parents bill of rights' initiative from becoming law

The legislative building is pictured on a sunny day under a bright blue sky.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
The Washington Legislative Building seen on March 7, 2024, the final day of this year's legislative session.

A group of legal advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against the state of Washington Thursday to prevent a hotly debated voter initiative from taking effect next month.

The organizations claim that the measure, Initiative 2081, conflicts with youth privacy laws and could “result in harm to LGBTQ+ students, youth of color, and students from other marginalized backgrounds,” according to a press release. A court hearing on the lawsuit could happen next week.

I-2081 was one of three Republican-backed voter initiatives that the Legislature approved in March. It’s known as the so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” and outlines more than a dozen rights for parents to oversee their kids’ education and school medical records.

At the time, Democratic lawmakers who decided to vote for the measure said they support parents being involved in their children's schooling but were concerned about the possibility that the measure didn’t mesh well with existing education policy. A legislative staff analysis showed much of the langauge in I-2081 is duplicative, or in some cases less precise, than state and federal regulations around parental access to school materials and student records — and some lawmakers interpreted this to mean than the measure wouldn't drastically change current practices.

Several legislators have vowed to keep a close watch on the implementation of I-2081, and said they’d be quick to make changes to the law if it caused harm to young people, particularly LGBTQ youth, or confusion among school administrators.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties of Washington, Qlaw, and Legal Voice jointly filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 plaintiffs to prevent the measure from taking effect on June 6.

The lawsuit alleges that the measure violates the state constitution.

“Our state constitution requires that new laws properly identify how they impact existing laws, and 2081 fails to do that,” said Adrien Leavitt, ACLU staff attorney. "The way that the initiative was written is confusing, and it's vague and it's misleading — and it doesn't explain what important rights that it actually impacts for the youth that attend our state's public schools."

The plaintiffs in the case include several nonprofits, like Lavender Rights Project, Sexual Violence Law Center and MomsRising. Two individuals, as well as South Whidbey School District, are also named as plaintiffs in the case.

"Black and Indigenous students rely upon sexual health resources, information, and care within public schools and school-based clinics, and to erode confidentiality in those spaces will acutely impact those students," Leavitt added.

The lawsuit is the latest development in an ongoing saga of recent voter initiative action in Washington.

A group called Let’s Go Washington started working in 2023 to qualify a handful of voter initiatives for consideration in this year’s legislative session, including I-2081.

Let’s Go Washington founder Brian Heywood said in a statement that the ACLU’s lawsuit is antidemocratic.

“The ACLU has made their disdain for the democratic process abundantly clear,” Heywood said. “We expect [Attorney General] 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.”

Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) chairs the Washington State Republican party and filed the paperwork for I-2081. He called the lawsuit an attack on rights for families.

"ACLU Washington is damaging its credibility by aligning with several radical left organizations to file an eccentric lawsuit," he wrote in a text message.

Once I-2081 received enough support from registered voters to be considered in Olympia, Republicans were eager to hold hearings and pass the measure into law. Democrats, who have majority control in the Legislature, expressed concerns about the initiative, but enough of them voted with Republicans to approve it.

Legislative leaders said in March their decision to approve I-2081 and two other voter initiatives was multifaceted. One major point of consideration: Enacting these initiatives in the Legislature – as opposed to letting voters decide on them – preserved lawmakers’ ability to make prompt adjustments to those measures once they became law.

Three additional initiatives are going to the ballot in November. If voters pass any of these initiatives, changing them would require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature for the first two years the voter-approved policies are in effect — a relatively high bar to meet. Legislature-approved initiatives, meanwhile, can be adjusted just like any other part of state law.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.