State House committee OKs bill requiring school officials to address students by pronouns consistent with biological sex

House committee also OKs student-bathroom legislation

Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, addresses the House Education Committee about HB1468 at the Arkansas state Capitol on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

A House committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would require written permission from parents before school employees could address students by their preferred pronoun or name.

House 1468, which passed committee last week, was referred back to the House Education Committee after its sponsor, Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, said the bill needed to be amended. The committee passed the bill on a voice vote with Democrat representatives Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, and Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, dissenting.

The bill requires school officials to address students by the name listed on their birth certificate and the pronouns consistent with a student's biological sex, unless given parental permission to do otherwise. Long said his amendment further clarifies that school employees cannot be punished for not addressing a student by a preferred pronoun or name, even if the student gets permission from a parent.

Long said the bill is aimed at protecting religious liberty for teachers who may not want to call transgender students by their preferred pronouns or name.

"We don't allow schools to target anyone based on their identity, and we cannot single out trans students for their identities," said Ethan Avanzino of Eureka Springs, who testified against the bill. "This bill only protects First Amendment rights for those who believe it's wrong to be trans, but where is the right for the folks who are trans?"

Flowers also spoke against the bill, saying she could not imagine someone saying they couldn't call her by her name because of their religion.

"There's no problem," Flowers said. "We don't have any lawsuits, we don't have any firings or no examples of anyone being forced to do anything they don't want to do."

The House Education Committee also voted to concur with a Senate amendment Tuesday to restrict transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice at a public school. The Senate approved House Bill 1156 Monday on a party-line vote. The bill moves to the House for a vote.

The bill applies to places at schools where people "may be in various stages of undress" around others, which would include bathrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms and shower rooms. The bill also calls for schools to provide "a reasonable accommodation" for someone who may not be comfortable using a multioccupancy bathroom.

The bill was amended in the Senate to clarify that students traveling on school-sponsored overnight trips must either share sleeping quarters with students of the same sex or be "provided single-occupancy sleeping quarters."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said she introduced the legislation in response to contention at the Conway School Board, which implemented a similar policy in October. Bentley said the bill is meant to shield school districts from potential lawsuits over bathroom policies.

Bentley's bill bans school districts from adopting a different policy and would call for an "allegation of noncompliance" to be referred to the Professional Licensure Standards Board. School officials found to be in noncompliance could face a fine of up to $1,000 and other sanctions, according to the bill.