Republicans Return Disney Contributions As Lawsuit Challenges "Don't Say Gay" Bill

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CORRECTION: News Daytona Beach originally reported that Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary), and representatives Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach) and Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) returned their contributions to Disney, which is not confirmed. Those three lawmakers have not said whether or not they plan to return their money. Our report has been changed to reflect this correction.

A number of Florida’s Republican lawmakers, including some in Volusia and Flagler, are returning campaign donations made by Disney for the company’s response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff (R-DeLand) is one of those lawmakers returning their Mickey money, following an announcement she made on Thursday (March 31).

“Due to the recent actions and statements made by the Walt Disney company regarding HB 1557, Parental Rights in Education, returning their contributions was the right thing to do,” said Fetterhoff in the statement. “I stand with Governor DeSantis, Speaker Chris Sprowls, and most importantly Florida’s parents in support of their parental rights and the ability for them to make decisions regarding the education of their children.”

Campaign records show Disney donated $2,000 to Fetterhoff’s campaign in 2021. Those contributions were made by Disney Gift Card Services and Disney Destinations LLC. Both contributions were worth $1,000 each and were made on September 24, 2021.

Also returning donations, per an article from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, is Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-Deltona). Barnaby confirmed this through a text message sent to the newspaper. Records from the Florida Division of Elections shows Barnaby also received $2,000 from Disney, again in two $1,000 payments. The first was made on February 2, 2021—from Disney Gift Card Services, Inc.—and the second was made on July 23 of that year—from Disney Photo Imaging LLC.

The same report from the News-Journal says Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Lake Mary), and representatives Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach) and Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) received contributions from Disney but did not respond to comment on whether they planned to return the money or not. Between the three, their campaigns received almost $200,000 between 2016 and 2020.

Rep. Joe Harding (R-Williston) is the sponsor of HB 1557 and he was the first to return his contributions to Disney. The company donated $3,000 to Harding’s campaign in January 2021 with three payments of $1,000 from Disney Gift Card Services, Disney Photo Imaging and Disney Destinations LLC. Almost $130 in in-kind donation for food and drinks related to a campaign event was also donated by Disney.

Republicans and the entertainment giant have been at odds since Disney spoke out against the passage of the bill. That garnered some controversy for the company, which was derided for not speaking out sooner. That led to the Human Rights Campaign to refuse any future Disney contributions. Democrats also dealt their own blow to Disney when the Florida Democratic Party said it will choose new dates and venues for its Leadership Blue gala, which was initially scheduled to be held at Disney.

Most recently, Rep. Spencer Roach (R-Fort Myers) said he and other lawmakers were discussing a repeal of a special legislative act that created the Reedy Creek Improvement District—a special administrative zone that serves as the site of the company’s entertainment epicenter, Walt Disney World. 

The Florida legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967. The district, which encompasses about 25,000 acres of land in Central Florida, was made responsible for paying the cost of municipal services like power, water, and waste management. Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers with 77,000 employees in the state alone, essentially controls the Board of Supervisors for Reedy Creek.

Under the bill, instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited in kindergarten through third grade. It additionally requires that such instruction in other grades is “age-appropriate” in accordance with state academic standards.

Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity Law Draws Quick Challenge

This section was contributed by Ryan Dailey of the News Service of Florida

Three days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure, LGBTQ-advocacy groups, parents, students and a teacher filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging a new law that includes barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early school grades.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Northern District of Florida, seeks to block Florida from moving forward with the law, which is set to take effect in July. While DeSantis and Republican lawmakers describe the law as boosting parental rights, it has drawn national attention as critics dubbed it the “don’t say gay” bill.

DeSantis, the State Board of Education, the state Department of Education and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are named as defendants, along with the school boards in Manatee, Sarasota, Miami-Dade, St. Johns and Jackson counties.

The challenge focuses on a part of the law (HB 1557) that would prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade and require that such instruction in older grades is age-appropriate in accordance with state academic standards.

Lawyers for the opponents, including the LGBTQ-advocacy group Equality Florida, argue in the lawsuit that the measure is discriminatory and “aims at sexual orientations and gender identities that differ from heterosexual and cisgender identities.”

The 80-page complaint alleges that the law violates constitutional free-speech and equal-protection rights. Also, it contends that the law violates due-process rights because of “vagueness.”

“H.B. 1557 piles one violation on top of another. It offends principles of free speech and equal protection by seeking to censor discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity that recognize and respect LGBTQ people and their families. It offends due process by using broad and vague terms to define its prohibitions — thus inviting discriminatory enforcement and magnifying its chilling effect on speech. And it arises from discriminatory purposes and outdated sex-based stereotypes that offend deeply rooted constitutional and statutory requirements,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit points to other parts of Florida law that require a “uniform, safe, secure, efficient, and high quality system of education” that is “made available without discrimination” on the basis of factors like race, ethnicity, gender, religion or marital status. It also cited “inclusivity efforts” by local school districts that focused on LGBTQ students.

“H.B. 1557 seeks to undo all of this. Although it is formally entitled the ‘Parental Rights in Education Act,’ it is popularly and more accurately known as Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” the lawsuit said.

DeSantis and the bill’s Republican backers have vigorously defended the measure and disputed the “don’t say gay” moniker.

DeSantis has accused lawmakers who opposed the measure and other critics of mischaracterizing the bill by “sloganeering.” The governor also argued that the bill’s detractors “support having woke gender ideology” in early grades.

“I think that they’ve gone through sloganeering and all these things really out of desperation. Because they know they could never argue their position on the merits. They would … crumble, I think, under the weight of outrage from parents if they were actually standing on the wall and saying that they support those things,” DeSantis said Monday before signing the bill.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who joined DeSantis for a bill-signing event, echoed the governor’s comments and took issue with objections to the bill by President Joe Biden’s administration and high-profile celebrities.

“This was super easy to figure out what this bill did. And yet, people lied about it. The media lied about it. Advocates lied about it. Whether it was in the White House press room, or whether it was last night (Sunday) at the Oscars, there were lies about it. And the governor’s right, they were intentional,” Sprowls said.

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