The bill would allow New Jersey students to put their preferred names on their diplomas without getting a legal name change. (Getty Images)
New Jersey lawmakers on Monday advanced legislation to make it easier for students to use their preferred names on diplomas.
The measure (A1588) attracted opposition from critics who say it would trouble them to change names on a diploma and Christian groups who say it would infringe on their religious freedoms.
“If I was forced to change a legal document of any sort, including a diploma or any document, and change it from Steven to Stephanie, or Stephanie to Steven, or Josephine to Joseph, I couldn’t do it. My Christian faith, my deeply held religious faith, would not allow me to do it,” said Victoria Jakelsky, director of New Jersey Parental Rights.
The measure would apply to all schools, public and private. They would not be allowed to require students to provide legal documentation that they had changed their name, and they could deny the requests only in cases of someone misrepresenting their identity, avoiding a legal obligation, harming the reputation of the school, or using derogatory, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate language.
Lena Counts of the Protect Your Children organization called the bill “dangerous” and a “direct assault to our God-given, First Amendment rights.” Gwen Jankowski, of the same group, said it would leave school administrators “torn between honoring or denying a request knowing it’s disingenuous, but want to avoid any potential legal problems.”
Schools would also be required to update a former student’s records if they provide documentation showing a legal name or gender change. That would include a transcript or diploma, and schools could charge a fee for reissuing those documents.
LGBTQ rights group Garden State Equality supports the bill, with its executive director, Christian Fuscarino, saying in a statement it would “ensure a smoother process for those of the trans and non-binary experience.”
“Our pro-equality legislature is ensuring that LGBTQ issues continue to move forward despite some well-funded conservative fringe groups seeking to roll back equality. We applaud these legislators for their bravery and for seeing through the lies of those who seek to roll back progress,” Fuscarino said.
In states like Utah, Texas, and Florida, lawmakers are introducing legislation targeting transgender youth. One bill in Indiana would force schools to inform parents if a student wants to change their name, attire, or pronouns in a way that is inconsistent with the gender they were assigned at birth.
If passed, New Jersey’s bill wouldn’t help just LGBTQ students, but also people who have a nickname that better represents their identity or an Americanized version of their name, supporters of the bill said Monday.
The bill advanced out of the Assembly Higher Education Committee over opposition from two Republican members. Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Morris) said she’d like to see parental notification added to the bill, as well as some kind of requirement that a student provides legal evidence of a name change.
Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth) said the bill could be problematic from an administrative standpoint. If a diploma differs from a transcript, class roster, or exams, that could lead to confusion among teachers. Scharfenberger, a college professor, said he still gets requests from students for letters of recommendation 10 or 15 years later.
“I foresee a Pandora’s box of chaos and confusion. If a school wants to do this on their own, that’s their prerogative, but to mandate it, I see the problem,” he said.
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