Senate committee approves amendment to bathroom bill

HB1156 goes to full Senate today with amended language

Arkansas Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, asks a question during presentation of House Bill 1156, which would make transgender students use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth or a single occupancy bathroom, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Education at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

A Senate committee again approved a bill to restrict transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice at a public school.

House Bill 1156 came before the committee again after the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Sullivan, introduced an amendment to clarify language that bars students from "sleeping quarters with a member of the opposite sex" during an overnight school-sponsored trip.

The amendment, which came at the suggestion of Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, said students must either share sleeping quarters with one or multiple members of the same sex or be "provided single-occupancy sleeping quarters."

The Education Committee passed the amended version of the bill on a voice vote, with Democrats Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock dissenting. The bill will head back to the Senate floor today for a vote. If approved, the bill would head to the governor for action.

The bill would require public schools and open enrollment public charter schools to prohibit people from using a multiple-occupancy restroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The bill also would apply to places at schools where people "may be in various stages of undress" around others, which would include locker rooms, changing rooms and shower rooms.

The bill has a requirement for schools to provide "a reasonable accommodation" for those unwilling to use a multi-occupancy restroom.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Mary Bentley, said the idea for the bill was brought to her by members of the Conway School Board, who passed a similar policy in October that caused a backlash among some in the community. Bentley said she wanted to create a state law that would shield school districts from lawsuits if they enacted a similar bathroom policy.

Members of the public urged the committee not to pass the bill, calling it an attack on transgender people. Jessica Disney of Conway told the committee the bill creates an environment where trans students are "singled out and told to go elsewhere."

Sarah Everett, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said the bill would not withstand a legal challenge, as "multiple circuit courts of appeals" have said similar laws have violated federal sex discrimination statutes.

"I remember very vividly when I was growing up that I was picked on just for being gay, in the males' bathroom," said M.D. Hunter, who testified against the bill. "So you can only imagine what it would feel like for a trans youth to be in the bathroom and being picked on just for being who they are. So this bill is going to put them in a position where they are going to be targeted even more than they are in our society today."