California bill seeks to punish 'misgendering' with jail time

Gender Credit fieldwork via Shutterstock fieldwork via Shutterstock.

A new bill in California would punish the 'misgendering' of nursing home and long-term care patients with hefty fines and even jail time.

In February, state senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 219, the "Long-term care facilities: rights of residents" bill, which has already been passed by California's state senate. After being recommended by the state assembly's judiciary committee, the bill will now be considered by the California House of Representatives.

If passed into law, the policy would punish nursing home and long-term care workers who refuse to call patients by their preferred pronouns with fines of up to $1,000, or jail time for up to a year, or both.

Besides compelling workers to refer to residents by their preferred pronouns, the bill would also mandate that facilities allow residents room assignments and bathroom preferences based on gender identity rather than biological sex.

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA that the bill could unjustly target religious facilities and place excessive burden on an already-heavily regulated industry.

"It would potentially compromise some of the institutions that are religiously sponsored and would not want to be supportive" of gender identity room or bathroom assignments, he said.

He added that it seemed to be solving a problem that wasn't there, since there haven't been widespread reports of discrimination based on gender in the state's nursing home and long-term care facilities.

"In many ways it seems to be a solution looking for a major problem," he said.  

"That's certainly one of our concerns – is this just part of a larger ideological drill? Do we have examples of people being mistreated around the state because of their gender experience? It seems that this is more like – let's fix something that we don't even know needs fixing."

Greg Burt, with the California Family Council, testified against SB 219 in July, noting that it would infringe on the First Amendment rights of workers by compelling them to use speech with which they might not agree.

"How can you believe in free speech, but think the government can compel people to use certain pronouns when talking to others?" Burt asked members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee during his testimony.

"Compelled speech is not free speech. Can the government compel a newspaper to use certain pronouns that aren't even in the dictionary? Of course not, or is that coming next?"

Burt also denounced the bill for lacking any religious exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions.

"Those proposing this bill are saying, 'If you disagree with me about my view of gender, you are discriminating against me'," Burt testified. "This is not tolerance. This is not love. This is not mutual respect… True tolerance, tolerates people with different views.  We need to treat each other with respect, but respect is a two-way street. It is not respectful to threaten people with punishment for having sincerely held beliefs that differ from your own."

Dolejsi said he anticipated that the bill would pass in the legislature sometime in the next week, and would head to the desk of the governor. At that point, the California Catholic Conference would advocate for a veto, based on the burden the bill would place on religious institutions and the industry of nursing and long-term care facilities.

"Our advocacy with the governor will be inviting his veto based on…(the fact that) it doesn't seem to be sensitive to the many religious organizations that sponsor these particular homes and facilities, and there's no (religious exemption). And, absent a strong experience out in society for rights being violated in this regard, it seems like this is burdening the state in an industry that's already challenged."

Understaffing and under-qualified personnel is a growing problem in nursing home and long-term care facilities throughout the nation, as baby boomers age and the industry struggles to keep up.

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While this bill could pave the way for legislation that would apply more broadly, such legislation is already in the works, Dolejsi noted, including a bill that would mandate gender identity training for all state employees.

"That's the nature of how we're experiencing this in California," he said. "It's like every aspect of public life needs to salute and address concerns of the LGBT folks."

Dolejsi encouraged concerned Catholics to keep up with the legislation that was being approved, and to contact their elected officials by email or phone to express their concerns. He also encouraged participation in town hall meetings, and persistency in raising their concerns.

"We need practical laws," he added. "And if there is truly a case of discrimination, then let's sit down and figure out how to...bring people together and solve it in a way that's respectful of people's religious values and expressions and experiences."

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