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Pence visits Iowa on the same day parents suing Linn-Mar schools ask court to block policy for transgender students

Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa talks to supporters inside a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids ahead of introducing former Vice President Mike Pence.
Clay Masters
Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa talks to supporters inside a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids ahead of introducing former Vice President Mike Pence.

Former Vice President Mike Pence was in Iowa Wednesday supporting parents who have sued a Cedar Rapids-area school district for its transgender affirming policies. Pence’s visit comes as Republican presidential hopefuls test the waters a year ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Pence calls Linn-Mar Schools policy ‘dangerous’ while protesters gather outside

Mike Pence was in Cedar Rapids the same day a federal appeals court in Minnesota heard arguments by a group representing parents of students in the Linn-Mar Community School District. They sued over a policy adopted last year allowing students there to ask to use a gender-affirming name or pronouns without including their parents. Pence said “this isn’t bad policy, this is crazy.”

Pence also spoke with supporters in St. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday where the appeals court heard oral arguments earlier in the day.

“We’re asking the court to end this dangerous and degrading policy and restore sanity and the primitive role of parents in schools,” Pence said to a small group of supporters at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids. “Not just here in Iowa but all across America.”

Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson introduced Pence to the crowd. Hinson’s children attend Linn-Mar schools. She and Gov. Kim Reynolds met privately with parents last year to hear concerns they had with the policy.

More than 50 protesters gathered along Westdale Drive outside the Pizza Ranch holding signs in support of LGBTQ youth.

“All the Republican politicians just beat up on trans kids to be divisive and get the votes of their base,” said Hiawatha city council member Aime Wichtendahl. “It’s absolutely disgusting and it’s harmful both to our state and country and the kids involved too. Lives are at stake here.”

Wichtendahl is thought to be Iowa’s first trans elected official.

The trip comes as Republicans start testing the water a year out from caucuses

Pence is among a group of Republicans who have started making trips to Iowa a year ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses in 2024. The Democratic National Committee voted this month to remove Iowafrom the early window of presidential nominating states.

Pence’s trip came the same day former South Carolina Gov. and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced she’s running for president.

“Ambassador Nikki Haley did a great job in our administration and she may have more company soon in the race for president,” Pence told reporters after the event. “I promise folks in Iowa and all of you I’ll keep you posted.”

Haley will make trips to Marion and Urbandale on Monday. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has not announced he’s running, will also be in Iowa next week.

Appealing to block Linn-Mar’s policy

The parents suing Linn-Mar schools took their case to the Eighth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota, Wednesday asking to block the district’s transgender student policy.

In September, a district court judge denied their request to temporarily block enforcement of the rules while the legal challenge goes forward.

Under the Linn-Mar policy, students in seventh grade and older are given priority over their parents in forming a gender support plan and a student who asks for a gender support plan can decide who attends the meeting to talk about it, “including whether their parent/guardian will participate.”

Cameron Norris, an attorney representing the conservative advocacy group Parents Defending Education, told the judges on the appeals court panel that parents have a constitutional right to know when their child is discussing their gender identity at school.

Norris compared using gender-affirming pronouns to providing a form of medical treatment.

“Before you do the treatment of affirming my child’s different gender identity, I have the right to be informed and participate in that decision,” Norris said.

Miriam Van Heukelem, representing Linn-Mar, said the policy gives older students more authority in creating gender support plans, but she said parents still have the right to access any of their educational records.

“The policy says that a parent or guardian has a right to review their student’s education records under (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act),” Van Heukelem said.

The policy is not meant to withhold gender identity records from a student’s parents, she said, but it is meant to protect confidential information from being shared with other parents in the district and teachers who do not have a legitimate interest in seeing a student’s personal records.

The lawsuit also challenges rules that say a student or teacher could be disciplined for harassment or bullying if they do not respect a student’s gender identity. Norris said that could violate a student’s free speech rights.

“There has been no showing in this case that Title IX, or state law or any other law requires the school to compel students to use each other’s preferred pronouns even if they choose not to in a very respectful way,” he said.

Van Heukelem said schools have an interest in teaching students how to be civil to one another and to prevent bullying. She said asking them to call each other by their preferred names falls under that responsibility.

“Saying ‘I believe gender is immutable and cannot be changed’ may implicate First Amendment rights,” Van Huekelem said. “A student choosing not to call another student by a name that they prefer, while there may be some belief behind that, it’s simply rude and disrespectful to refuse to refer to somebody by their chosen name whether that’s on the basis of gender identity or anything else.”

No immediate decision was made in the case.

Court hearing comes as bills work through the Iowa legislature

As the legal challenge works its way through the federal courts, the issue of parents being involved in gender identity matters at school is also working its way through the Iowa legislature.

Under a Senate bill proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, school staff would have to immediately notify a parent if they believe a student has expressed a different gender identity at school.

A proposal in the Iowa House would require a parent’s consent before a school can accommodate a student who wishes to socially transition at school. That bill has passed through the Education Committee, making it available for debate on the House floor.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.
Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa