POLAND: CSOs are worried about the Polish government’s efforts to restrict LGBTQI+ teaching in schools, the ‘Russian Influence’ law, and upcoming elections

Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF.

In Poland, there have been several worrying developments to the rights of the LGBTQI+ communities. 

In ILGA-Europe’s (the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) annual review 2023, Poland ranked 42nd out of 49 countries for LGBT+ rights. One of the trends analysed in the report was ‘education’, in which updates on the controversial amendments to the Education Act (known as Lex Czarnek’), which would “prevent NGOs from giving extra-curricular sexual education classes in schools and holding events”, were cited as an example of a worrying development and restriction on LGBT+ rights in Poland. 

More recently, there have been concerns over Poland’s ‘Russian influence’ law which has been condemned by the European Commission, the United States, and by Polish opposition members.  

The EU Commission suing Poland over the ‘Russian Influence’ law 

On May 29th, the Polish Parliament adopted a new ‘Russian influence’ law. This law would establish a special committee of nine-members, all appointed by the Parliament where the PiS has a majority, to investigate cases of “Russian influence” in the country and government between 2007 to 2022. If someone is found guilty of having acted under Russian influence, one penalty that they could face is being banned from public office for a decade. 

There are concerns that the law “violates the Polish constitution” and could be used to target opposition members ahead of Poland’s general election later this year, which as a result could hamper fair and democratic elections. 

Members of the opposition party, Civic Platform, have criticised the law, stating that it could be used against their party leader Donald Tusk who signed a Russian gas deal during his time as Prime Minister between 2007 to 2014. As a result, the law has been nicknamed ‘Lex Tusk’. 

The European Parliament’s main political groups raised further concerns that this legislation would “cause major issues and restrictions regarding compliance with the right to be elected, freedom of expression and freedom of association”, and therefore, have an impact on politicians, democracy, the media, and civil society. 

Even though President Andrzej Duda declared that it is a crucial law to ensure “transparency in explaining important public and political issues”, he has since tried to backtrack following the criticism, announcing that he would make amendments to the law by removing sanctions against people found to have acted in the interests of “Russian influence” and removing MPs as the special committee members. He also referred the law to be examined by the Constitutional Tribunal. 

Despite this, the amendments have not been voted on by the Parliament, which means that the law that President Duda signed is still in force. Even with amendments, law critics fear that the law will continue to breach the Polish constitution and stigmatise opposition members. 

Both the European Commission and the United States have condemned this bill, and on June 7th, the Commission announced that it is suing Poland over this law. 

Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU Commission’s Executive Vice-President, shared in a press briefing that “the College (of Commissioners) agreed to start an infringement procedure by sending a letter of formal notice in relation to the new law on the state committee for examination of Russian influence”.  

Latest controversial education bill  

On May 4th, Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), proposed a bill against the “sexualisation” of children and teenagers called “Protect Children, Support Parents.” 

The draft law proposes prohibiting activities that ”sexualise children” which would entail

  • Restricting access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education in kindergartens and primary schools, which includes students up to the age of 15. 
  • In professional, technical, and high schools, which include students up to age 20, NGOs would require the approval of the school’s principal and the parent’s council (a body representing parents of the school’s students) to be able to enter the premises.  
  • All-age students participating in group-led education activities would be required to obtain written consent from both parents. 

In a press briefing, Kaczyński explained that “the idea is to prevent children from being exposed to practices that are certainly harmful to them and may cause serious damage to their psyche” so that parents have the sole freedom to decide their children’s upbringing. 

Whilst the “practices” were not specified or defined, Elżbieta Witek, the speaker of the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, has suggested that it would focus on restricting LGBT+ education in schools.  

Challenges for LGBTQI+ persons 

The PiS’ latest education bill comes in a context where LGBTQI+ rights are increasingly being threatened.  

This month, Poland’s commissioner for children’s rights, Mikołaj Pawlak, announced that various inspections would take place in schools that were recently ranked as the ‘most LGBTQ-friendly’ in the country, in the fifth annual ranking of LGBTQI+-friendly Schools (Ranking Szkół Przyjaznych Lgbt) produced by LGBT Plus Me. 

Pawlak has justified this decision by stating that “we must protect children from criminals” and claiming that “principals and other institutions often do not check their employees against the register of paedophiles”. 

Moreover, on May 13th, Przemysław Czarnek, the Minister of Education and Science, demonised the LGBTQI+ persons by blaming their “ideology” and “brainwashing” for the worrying increase in child suicide rates in Poland. 

Czarnek has been criticised for vilifying LGBTQI+ people and for being ineffective in addressing problems such as more access and support to “Poland’s outdated mental health support system”. 

Another worrying incident occured on May 20 during the third Equality March, organised in Olsztyn, during which a woman who was carrying a pride flag was shot in the head with a BB gun. 

The victim suffered minor head injuries and has been released from hospital, but organisers of the Olsztyn Equality March condemned this incident as “an act of violence directed against the entire LGBTQIA+ community and its allies”. 

In another concerning development, in May 2023, three LGBTQI+ activists were sentenced for their role in attacking a van which displayed and broadcasted anti-LGBT messages in Warsaw in June 2020.  

This van was used by the Fundacja Pro, a religious conservative group, and showed images and slogans linking LGBT to paedophilia. 

According to a CIVICUS Monitor report, during this march LGBTQI+ activists was also arrested for hanging rainbow flags on several statues in Warsaw 

The three activists, known as Paweł Sz., Zuzanna M and Margot, who according to a CIVICUS Monitor report were also arrested for hanging LGBTI rainbow flags on several statues in Warsaw, were charged with hooliganism, assault, and property damage in 2021. Last month a district court in Warsaw found all three activists guilty and sentenced them to community service, which included onne year for ‘Margot’, 11 months for Paweł Sz, and six months for Zuzanna M. Moreover, Margot and Paweł Sz were ordered to fix the damages to the van and pay the Fundacja Pro 6,000 zloty (€1,332). 

The Fudacja Pro has a history of  driving vans with anti-LGBT images and slogans around different Polish cities to campaign to “stop paedophilia” by claiming that the “LGBT lobby wants to use sex education lessons in schools to “sexualise” children”. 

Earlier, in March of this year, Mariusz Dzierżawski, the founder of Fudacja Pro, was found guilty of criminal defamation for “hate speech against homosexuals”. 

However, the court ruling received backlash from Marcin Romanowski, the deputy Minister for Justice, and members of the national-conservative PiS Party, who deemed it a case of “repression against opponents of LGBT ideology”.  

Within this concerning context, a new education proposal, supported by the Polish government, is the latest attack on LGBTQI+ rights and an attempt to eliminate LGBTQI+ education and access in schools. However, this plan has been an objective of several other politicians and ultra- conservative groups for several years. 

Lex Czarnek’ 

In 2021, the Education Act, renamed the ‘Lex Czarnek’ after Przemysław Czarnek, was a new proposal which ”would have taken discretionary power away from schools” and led to the “dismissal or even criminal sanctions for teachers or school management who openly support LGBT+ students or discuss LGBT issues in school”. This bill was part of a greater initiative of the PiS for education reforms which would focus on defending Polish conservative and Christian values.  

The bill caused outrage by opposition members, civil society, and LGBT+ activists as there were serious concerns that it would lead to the ban of sex education, limit the teaching of LGBTQI+ materials, and politicise schools.  

This bill also has an impact on civic space and Polish CSOs. As outlined in the ECF’s Civic Space Report 2023 (read the report here), each legislative vote drains the resources of NGOs when they advocate and campaign against government initiatives, which also impacts their ability to focus on their own missions.  

Moreover, the ‘Lex Czarnek’ bill affects NGOs working in schools as the provisions introduced new bureaucratic procedures requesting NGOs to gain a special permit to be allowed to work in educational establishments. However, this can be a barrier to NGOs as there are concerns about the difficulties and length it will take to obtain this permit. 

President Duda vetoed the first version of the bill in March 2022. After some amendments, it was revived again in October and  passed by the lower Parliament Chamber (Sejm), while rejected by the upper chamber’s (Senate). However, when the bill was adopted, civil society and activists campaigned for President Duda to veto the bill once again, which he did in December 2022.  

Przemysław Czarnek has stated that he will focus on the ‘Lex Czarnek’ initiative once again after the 2023 Polish Parliamentary elections at the end of the year. Concerningly, the current proposed amendments to the Education act put forward by PiS are similar to those made in ‘Lex Czarnek’. 

Ordo Iuris  

Ordo Iuris, a religious fundamentalist NGO known for opposing abortion rights, women’s rights, gender studies, and anti-discriminatory legislation, has campaigned against “LGBT ideology” in sex education for several years.  

In 2019, an ‘LGBT+ Declaration’ proposed by Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw, introduced provisions designed to help homeless LGBT+ youth and anti-discriminatory measures in education. 

Ordo Iuris criticised this initiative and launched a counter-campaign called the ‘Local Government Charter of the Rights of the Family’, which claimed its goal was to ensure the “healthy and safe education of children and respect for parental rights by local governments”, but in reality, was a campaign to prevent access and influence of LGBT+ education in schools to ensure that conservative Polish values were upheld.  

By mid-2020, the Charter had been signed by almost 100 municipalities and regions of Poland, whilst over 100 municipalities in Poland declared themselves as ‘LGBT-free zones’, which caused outrage among Polish and global LGBTQI+ activists and CSOs. 

In 2023, the Protect Children, Support Parents” bill, a citizens initiative, was put forward by Ordo Iuris and supported by the PiS. The initiative requires 100,000 signatures in order for it to be introduced in Parliament.  

The PiS and far-right religious groups, including Ordo Iuris, have been using the “sexualisation of children” rhetoric to promote an anti-LGBT agenda and may continue doing do ahead of the 2023 Polish elections, which was one of the concerns of protesters during the anti-government protests in Warsaw early June, in which hundreds of thousands of protestors marched against the PiS and Kaczyński . 

The European Commission has responded to discriminatory and so- called “LGBTQI free zones” in Poland stating that they violate “EU law regarding discriminatory legislation, on the grounds of sexual orientation”. In 2019, over 100 municipalities in Poland declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. 

The EU Commission confirmed in May that local governments that are upholding discriminatory policies would not be “eligible for EU cohesion funds due to concerns over appropriate spending” and that an infringement procedure against Poland would start due to the country’s failure to respond appropriately to the “EU executive’s inquiry over the nature and impact of the LGBT-ideology free zones.”  

CSOs are taking action 

The PiS government has been developing the narrative that LGBTQI+ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights are a threat to schools, the protection of children, and traditional Polish values to shape ideas on how to reform schools and launch new education policies for several years. 

If the latest proposed education draft becomes law, it would have a chilling effect on NGOs, schools, and teachers who provide LGBTQI+ and reproductive rights education and would make it difficult, and even unsafe, to continue teaching the same material and offering a safe space for students to access those topics. 

On May 30th, the EU General Affairs Council held a meeting on the situation in Poland and Hungary to discuss both countries’ respect for EU laws and values. 

Several INGOs and CSOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation, and Transparency International EU wrote a letter to EU Ministers on the continued rule of law backsliding and human rights in Poland and Hungary and highlighted how this has led to the degradation of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland.  

Now, due to citizen participation in the anti-government protests, political groups in the EU Parliament have united in demanding a full-scale election observation mission ahead of Poland’s general election later this year.  

Willa Plus” scandal and the implications for up-coming local and general elections  

The scandal surrounding the central government’s programme, dubbed “Willa Plus”, was the result of the introduction of new prerogatives to the Education Act, which allow the Ministry to make property investments (article 90x of the Education Act). The programme’s allocation of 40 million zloty, was distributed to organisations linked to PiS government, as reported by investigative journalists.  

The officially stated aim of the programme was to allow NGOs to buy or renovate real property. While the support of third sector organisations was generally a welcomed development there are concerns over the lack of transparency of this process (for example, the Ministry ignored the opinions of the experts which evaluated the proposals submitted to the Ministry). As a result, the money was used to support political allies or organisations supporting the government.  

As pointed out by Łukasz Górczyński, an expert on civil society in Poland and board member of the National Federation of Polish NGOs, in the context of the “Willa Plus” scandal: “The authorities on central level gradually extend their powers and the field of intervention. In and of itself, this might, potentially, be a good development. However, the worrying aspect is the removal of all democratic checks and balances – both institutionally (changes in the judiciary, attempts at narrowing down the competences and scope of activities of the Supreme Audit Office), and socially, (i.e. instrumental approach to the processes of social dialogue, evading public consultations, or ignoring the assessment of expert panels in calls that distribute public funding).”  

Civil society has expressed concern over the allocation of public funding to political allies (even if they are not formally linked to politics) or GONGOs which may become problematic in the election year by skewing the way that public opinion views the political process in Poland, adding to disinformation campaigns. This is a particularly worrying development in the context of the upcoming parliamentary and EU elections.