The Arkansas House of Representatives approved a bill Monday that would require written permission from a parent before a public school employee may address students by their preferred pronoun or name.
The House voted 65-18 to approve House Bill 1468, which moves to the Senate for further consideration.
"It protects the religious liberties of teachers, professors and administrators in our public education system," said Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, sponsor of the bill.
The bill bars school officials from addressing students by a pronoun that is "inconsistent with the unemancipated minor's or student's biological sex" unless given written permission from a parent or guardian to do otherwise.
School officials who refuse to address a student by a preferred name or pronoun cannot be punished, according to the bill. The bill applies to all public schools including universities, but school staff would only need permission to address a student by a preferred name or pronoun if they are a minor.
"This bill puts the ball in the parents' court," said Rep. Ryan Rose, R-Van Buren. "It's the parents' decision on what their child can or can't be called or what they do or don't go by."
The bill also prohibits faculty and staff from addressing students by a "name other than the name listed on the unemancipated minor's or student's birth certificate." The bill does not apply to derivative names, such as "Bob" for "Robert," Long said.
"Our teachers are scared because they are afraid of being sued," said Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith. "So let's help them out so they don't get sued, and let's get back to the basics of he and she."
House Minority leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill, saying "we make accommodations for folks and students every day without laws."
"This bill is presented as protecting school employees against compelled speech, but it only protects employees who don't want to affirm students' gender identity while limiting the speech of employees who do," McCullough said.
During the debate in the House on Monday, lawmakers noted how teachers would be barred from using nicknames without parental permission. Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said the physical education teacher at her children's school gives every student a nickname, which helps build morale, she said. If passed, the bill would open the teacher up to a lawsuit, she said.
The bill is one of several to draw a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, who wrote a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, dated March 9, criticizing it among other bills the group sees as discriminatory against transgender Arkansans. State lawmakers also have passed a bill restricting people from using the bathrooms of their choice at school.
"House Bill 1468 would give free rein to faculty members, teachers, and employees of public schools and state supported higher educational institutions to disregard and disrespect students' names and pronouns, thereby inviting them to out trans students publicly to their peers," ACLU of Arkansas President Holly Dickson wrote. "It would also limit the speech of school employees who wish to affirm a trans student's gender identity."