Senate committee adds amended ‘divisive concepts’ language to state budget

By: - May 27, 2021 2:06 pm
A woman holds signs opposing legislation in front of the New Hampshire state house

Jeanne Torpey of the Kent Street Coalition stands outside of the State House in Concord on Thursday to voice opposition to House Bill 544, the “divisive concepts” bill, among other pieces of legislation. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A key Senate committee moved forward an amended version of the “divisive concepts” bill, adding it to the New Hampshire budget and setting up another test for Gov. Chris Sununu. 

In a 4-2, party-line vote, Republicans on the Finance Committee voted to insert an amended version of the legislation into the budget trailer bill, adding some last-minute changes to a version put forward by the House in April.

First proposed by the House earlier this year, New Hampshire’s “divisive concepts” legislation would prohibit schools and public entities from teaching that one race or gender is superior to another, and would ban the teaching that a person is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The bill has been hailed by supporters as a means to ward against the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools, which they say creates an impression that all white citizens or male citizens practice discrimination against others. 

But a wide array of opponents, from civil rights advocates to business groups, have opposed the bill, arguing that it would censor free speech and prevent important anti-bias trainings and nuanced history lessons.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has come out against the bill in the past, stating repeatedly that he would veto the House’s version if it came to his desk.

But the version that passed Thursday morning – proposed by Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican – makes last-minute changes to the House language, which Bradley argues address the concerns about the suppression of speech.

Bradley’s amendment would expand the bill’s scope to include identities of people beyond race and sex, broadening the bill to also include age, gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, and national origin.

For example, under the amended bill, a school could not teach that able-bodied people are inherently oppressive against disabled people; that younger Americans broadly discriminate against older Americans; or that a student who is white has inherent privilege over a student of color. 

The amended bill also clarifies that while schools would not be able to teach that structural racism and implicit bias exist presently, teachers and government agencies could present them as concepts or theories in history. 

“Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the historical existence of ideas and subjects identified in this section,” the bill states. 

Republicans argued that the changes provided guardrails against discrimination of any kind in academic instruction or state-backed workplace training.

“It specifically says that nothing disallows teachers from bringing up what has happened in the past so our kids can learn from all of the mistakes that humankind has made in the past,” said Sen. Erin Hennessey, a Littleton Republican. “So I think that addresses that concern.”

Democrats on the committee countered that the tweaks did little to blunt the impact of the bill itself on schools and governments. 

“Unfortunately, I think it’s still as harmful as the original, in that it aims to ban critical concepts like implicit bias that are central to diversity, equity, and inclusion training, used for public employees, New Hampshire law enforcement, K-12 schools, universities, state and local agencies,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat. 

Some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, argued the new amendment – with a range of caveats – only heightened the confusion. 

“It is deeply problematic and shameful that New Hampshire is advancing confusing and ambiguous legislation that would censor the classrooms of its young people, robbing them of an inclusive education and imposing an alternate version of history,” Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire ACLU, said in a statement. 

The Senate amendment has been added to House Bill 2, the catch-all budget policy bill that houses a number of proposals that generally accompany budget appropriations in House Bill 1. 

By adding the language to the budget trailer bill, Senate Republicans sought to force Sununu’s hand, inserting the bill into a larger bill that the governor can’t easily amend or veto. 

But before it reaches Sununu’s desk, the legislation must survive a committee of conference process in which the Senate Republican budget is squared up with the House Republican budget and any differences are bridged. That process is expected to begin in June, after the full Senate votes on the budget on June 3.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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