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Edwards backs removal of House Education Committee chairman

April 29, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said he supports Black lawmakers’ push to oust House Education Chairman Ray Garofalo, who referenced the “good” parts of slavery in debate over his bill to prohibit teaching of “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism.

“I believe that the incident is egregious enough to warrant his removal, but I’m also the first to tell you I’m not the one who makes that decision,” the Democratic governor said.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said he hadn’t determined whether to keep or remove Garofalo, a St. Bernard Parish Republican, from the chairmanship in a controversy that has consumed the House for days.

“We’re all talking and trying to work it out,” said Schexnayder, who won his leadership position with support from Black lawmakers.

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The Legislative Black Caucus objected not only to Garofalo’s slavery comments — but also to the broader legislation and Garofalo’s decision to hold a debate on the proposal. The Black Caucus said the bill includes “insensitive and racist elements.”

The measure, which remains stalled in committee, would prohibit the teaching that the United States or Louisiana is “systematically racist or sexist,” among its lengthy requirements about how to handle discussions of race and sex in the classroom. It would bar giving students or employees information that “teaches, advocates, acts upon or promotes divisive concepts.”

Garofalo has doubled down on his defense of the bill, saying in a letter Thursday to one critic that the aim of his legislation was to “provide a discrimination free learning environment that provides equal opportunity for all students, regardless of race or background.”

He said his comments — which were shared widely across social media for days — were taken out of context. He’s blamed the media for inflaming the conflict.

Across Tuesday’s five-hour hearing on the measure, Garofalo faced a barrage of criticism that he was proposing to stifle free speech and ignore the country’s long history of racism and sexism.

The comments about slavery came in an exchange with New Orleans Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, who raised concerns about the proposal and asked Garofalo to explain how the measure would work practically in a classroom.

“If you’re having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything having to do with slavery: the good, the bad, the ugly,” Garofalo said.

Hilferty interrupted him: “There’s no good to slavery, though.”

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Garofalo quickly replied: “You’re right. You’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that. And I don’t believe that.”

Edwards was asked about the dispute Thursday and said Garofalo’s drawn complaints from both Democrats and Republicans.

“I think it is obvious and incontrovertible that he made some very unfortunate statements that have caused a significant number of his colleagues to lose confidence in him,” the governor said, pausing as he spoke to choose his words carefully.

Schexnayder gave no timeline for making a decision about Garofalo’s leadership position.

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The bill is filed as House Bill 564.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.