COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Columbus Metropolitan Club hosted a panel Wednesday on Ohio House Bill 616, which opponents have dubbed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The panel included President Scott DiMauro of the Ohio Education Association, Executive Director Densil Porteous of Stonewall Columbus, Public Policy Director Maria Bruno of Equality Ohio, Executive Director Troy McIntosh of the Ohio Christian Education Network and Bruce Hooley, host of The Bruce Hooley Show. The discussion was moderated by USA Today Gannett Ohio Bureau statehouse reporter, Anna Staver.

According to the bill’s text, HB 616 would prohibit schools from teaching about “divisive or inherently racist concepts,” including sexual orientation and gender identity for students between kindergarten and third grade. During the panel, Hooley said the bill is limited to “curriculum and instruction,” and makes no ban at all on “conversations.” Hooley explained further that topics teachers discuss with students and what questions students can ask are not “covered” in the bill.

“This is indicative of the alarmist rhetoric that you’ve been hearing about House Bill 616 – that [students] will be marginalized, they’ll be driven into the closet, they won’t be able to talk about their relationships at home, that’s just simply not true,” Hooley said.

Still, DiMauro said the bill is written to be deliberately vague, saying the state can expect many lawsuits should the bill become law.

“What is unmistakable about this legislation is that it is intended to instill fear, and by instilling fear in educators and by instilling fear in students, we are closing down important conversations that need to happen in our schools,” DiMauro said.

Staver noted opponents of the bill, and a law in Florida, have nicknamed the legislation “Don’t Say Gay,” even though the words “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender” don’t appear in the bill’s language. The wording in HB 616 is similar to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in late March, sparking protests throughout that state and a governmental showdown with Disney World, one of Florida’s largest private employers.

Bruno explained the bill got its nickname due to the bill’s presumed impact, saying there will be teachers who avoid speaking about these topics, like sexuality and race, altogether because they fear crossing a line.

“As we’ve mentioned, the language is very vague and could be weaponized,” Bruno said.

McIntosh likened the bill to the Constitution’s separation of church and state, and drew comparisons to the way a public school teacher cannot teach about Christian faith.

“We should not be teaching existential issues like this to children who are clearly not developmentally ready for it,” McIntosh said.

Porteous pointed out the “slippery slope” that happens when having conversations with young children. As a father with a five-year-old, Porteous said gender and identity come up from his daughter on her own.

Beyond sexuality and gender, the bill lists a few specific topics as “divisive” or “inherently racist,” including critical race theory, intersectional theory and the 1619 project, along with broader prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion learning outcomes.

“If [students] are not taught, hopefully in a place that’s safe and supportive of identity, the distinction between racism, white supremacy and cultural identity, then they will never be able to formally understand who they are as they’re developing,” Porteous said.

McIntosh argued that “critical race theory perspective is an avowedly Marxist perspective,” claiming one of the leading proponents of CRT is a Marxist. Staver concluded the discussion by asking the panelists what they wished the opposition understood about their position.

“I would appreciate if they understand that my top priority is the mental health and safety of youth in this state,” Bruno said.

DiMauro said he wished proponents of this legislation would understand the impact the bill has on educators, who are already feeling burnt out.

“These kinds of curriculum attacks are contributing to a culture which is driving people away from being educators,” DiMauro said.

Hooley stressed that parents want to protect their children, and said there are some concepts that are appropriate for home and others for school.

“I want to make sure people find their happiness, and happiness for many of us resides in our identity and how we develop,” Porteous said. “If we aren’t creating spaces where we as adults remember what it was like to be young people, and how challenging it might have been to understand and discover who we were, then we need to do the work to make sure that our young people are growing up and finding spaces where they can develop and understand who they are.”