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Teachers and civil rights groups sue over Oklahoma's ban on critical race theory

This June 11, 2015 file photo shows the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.

A group of educators and civil rights groups is challenging Oklahoma's new law limiting public school teachings on race and gender issues in court.

The lawsuit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma, was filed Tuesday. The organizations argue that HB 1775, which took effect in May, interferes with students' and educators' First Amendment rights to learn and talk about gender and race issues in school.

This policy also prevents students from discussing in-depth American history that reflects the experiences and viewpoints of "all historically marginalized communities in this country," the ACLU argues.

The groups suing asked the court to declare the law unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments. They also requested that a judge issue a preliminary injunction that would put an immediate stop to the policy in Oklahoma.

"All young people deserve to learn an inclusive and accurate history in schools, free from censorship or discrimination," said Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

The organization said this lawsuit is the first of its kind that challenges a state's effort at limiting instruction on critical race theory, which examines how racism as a social construct intersects with history, policy, the law and other areas. It's an advanced teaching usually reserved for law schools and undergraduate sociology courses.

This concept was pushed into the public consciousness by former President Donald Trump last year. Right-wing activists have since made it a cause célèbre and several Republican-led states, including Oklahoma and Idaho, have passed laws attempting to limit its reach in public schools.

But Oklahoma's law doesn't explicitly mention critical race theory in the legislation's text.

HB 1775 states broadly: No public school student in Oklahoma can be required to participate in any form of "mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling." It goes on to say, "Any orientation or requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex shall be prohibited."

Similarly, lessons showing one race or gender is superior to another or that a person, because of their "race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive" are banned.

If teachers are found to be teaching these lessons, they could lose their licenses and schools can lose their accreditation.

"HB 1775 is so poorly drafted — in places it is literally indecipherable — that districts and teachers have no way of knowing what concepts and ideas are prohibited," ACLU attorney Sykes said. "The bill was intended to inflame a political reaction, not further a legitimate educational interest. These infirmities in the law are all the more troubling because the bill applies to public colleges and universities, where the First Amendment is especially protective of academic freedom."

The ACLU says as a result of the law's approval, school districts in Oklahoma have told teachers not use terms like "diversity" and "white privilege" in the classroom. Books and other literary works dealing with race such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Raisin in the Sun have been removed from reading lists

Some schools have also limited or altogether eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion training for their educators, according to the group.

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