Parental rights and religious freedom are central to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new statewide policies for public schools, which Virginia’s education department released Friday. 

The updated policies reverse the transgender school mandates put in place by his predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam, which permitted schools to withhold a student’s gender transition from parents for “privacy” reasons.

The change also requires students to use bathrooms in accordance with their sex and asserts the right of parents to be involved in their children’s education and health. 

The policy document, 2022 Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for all Students and Parents in Virginia’s Public Schools, states that Virginia’s education department “fully acknowledges the rights of parents to exercise their fundamental rights granted by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to direct the care, upbringing, and education of their children.”

Importantly, the model policy says that parents have the primary right to make decisions concerning their children’s health and well-being. 

“Schools shall defer to parents to make the best decisions with respect to their children,” the policy reads. 

The document states that parents — not schools — should be in charge of deciding whether or not their child begins a gender transition and goes by a different name or pronoun. 

Many schools across the country implement gender support plans encouraging children to transition to a different sex without their parents knowing. 

The policy also explicitly says students will use bathrooms and participate in sports programs in accordance with “his or her sex.” 

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It also affirms that teachers are guaranteed religious freedom under the First Amendment and cannot be forced to comply with policies contradicting their religious beliefs.  

“Practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice or subjective experience, not sex,” the model policy reads, adding “Many Virginians reject this belief.”

Transgender policy and parents’ rights

Earlier this year, Youngkin’s education department conducted a review of Northam’s 2021 Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students

Among Northam’s policies, schools were required to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice and use students’ preferred pronouns. 

Youngkin called out Northam’s version for “disregarding the rights of parents” and ignoring “other legal and constitutional principles.” 

“The 2021 Model Policies promoted a specific viewpoint aimed at achieving cultural and social transformation in schools,” the department wrote.

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According to Equality Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy group, only 10% of Virginia school boards implemented Northam’s controversial rules for how schools should educate transgender students. The low participation rate was indicative of the backlash the policies received from parents who mobilized in school boards. 

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told CNA that “the previous policies implemented under the Northam administration did not uphold constitutional principles and parental rights, and will be replaced.”

“It is not under a school’s or the government’s purview to impose a set of particular ideological beliefs on all students. Key decisions rest, first and foremost, with the parents,” she said. 

Porter added that Youngkin’s 2022 policy “delivers on the governor’s commitment to preserving parental rights and upholding the dignity and respect of all public school students.”

Parental rights in 2021 campaign

The issue of parental rights figured prominently in the 2021 gubernatorial race, and many credit it as the basis for Youngkin’s victory over Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. 

“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out ... I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during a 2021 debate. 

“I believe parents should be in charge of their kid’s education,” Youngkin replied. 

Virginia House Delegate Glenn Davis applauded the governor’s model policy Friday in a tweet, saying it fixed “one of the most overreaching and abusive uses of a ‘model policy.’” 

“This new standard ensures all students have the right to attend school in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, and bullying,” Davis wrote. 

LGBTQ activist groups are denouncing the move. The ACLU of Virginia took to Twitter last week saying it was “appalled by the Youngkin administration’s overhaul of key protections for transgender students in public schools.”

The official public comment period for Youngkin’s model policy is expected to open at the end of the month on the department’s website, when Virginians have 30 days to issue feedback. 

After public comments are reviewed, the new standard goes into effect after the state superintendent issues final approval.

“Empowering parents is not only a fundamental right, but it is essential to improving outcomes for all children in Virginia,” the document reads.