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Proposed ban on teachers using transgender pronouns heads to Arkansas Senate


Proposed ban on teachers using transgender pronouns heads to Arkansas Senate

Mar 27, 2023 | 7:59 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
Proposed ban on teachers using transgender pronouns heads to Arkansas Senate
Rep. Wayne Long (R-Bradford) explains House Bill 1468 to the House on March 27, 2023. The bill would require school employees to use students’ and other employees’ given name and pronouns. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas House approved a bill Monday that would require school employees in Arkansas to address students and other employees by their given names and pronouns.

House Bill 1468 would require written permission from a minor’s parent or guardian for school employees to use any “pronoun or title that is inconsistent” with the minor’s biological sex or any name or nickname that does not conform with the minor’s birth certificate.

The bill passed the House Education Committee twice earlier this month, with minor amendments advancing at the second meeting. Rep. Wayne Long (R-Bradford), the bill’s primary sponsor, told the committee and the full House that the bill is meant to protect teachers from being “compelled” to call others by names and pronouns that conflict with their religious beliefs.

The First Amendment protects freedom of religion, and Long reminded the committee and the House of the Religious Liberty section of the Arkansas Constitution’s Declaration of Rights: “No human authority can, in any case or manner whatsoever, control or interfere with the right of conscience.”

Multiple people, including several who are transgender, told the committee on March 9 and March 14 that the bill would legalize discrimination against their community and punish support for it.

Proposed ban on teachers using transgender pronouns heads to Arkansas Senate
Ethan Avanzino, center, speaks against House Bill 1468 before the House Education Committee on March 14, 2023. The bill would require school employees to address others by their given names and pronouns. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

“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?” said Ethan Avanzino, a transgender man who spoke against the bill on March 14.

The proposed law allows derivatives of the names on students’ birth certificates to be used without parental permission. Long confirmed this Monday after Rep. RJ Hawk (R-Bryant) raised the question, citing his own nickname.

Rep. Brit McKenzie (R-Rogers) expressed the same misgivings in the March 9 committee meeting, adding that he uses an androgynous derivative of his middle name.

Hawk and McKenzie were two of the five Republican House members to vote present on the bill. Reps. Keith Brooks of Little Rock, Justin Gonzales of Okolona and Bart Schulz of Cave City also voted present.

Rep. Joey Carr (R-Blytheville) joined 17 of the 18 House Democrats in voting against the bill. Rep. Fred Allen (D-Little Rock) and 11 Republicans did not vote.

The remaining 65 House Republicans voted to send the bill to the Senate.

Teachers’ potential worries

School employees would “not be subject to adverse employment action” and students would not be disciplined for refusing to use others’ names and pronouns besides the ones given at birth, the bill states.

Democratic House members spoke against the bill, saying it would not only hurt transgender Arkansans but also create an unnecessary burden for school employees to ensure that parents consent to any nicknames or pet names, regardless of a student’s gender identity.

“If a teacher called a kid ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘champ,’ they are now opening themselves up to getting sued if they’ve done that before getting parental consent to use that particular nickname,” Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) said.

Clowney said she saw this as a bigger threat to teachers’ careers than Republican House members’ stated reason for the bill: that teachers should not have to fear being fired or losing their contracts because they choose to call students by their assigned names and pronouns.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) asked Long if he knew of any such instances in Arkansas. Long said a teacher in Northwest Arkansas contacted him after he filed House Bill 1468 and said she was afraid of losing her contract for adhering to her religious views about pronouns.

Rep. Hope Duke (R-Gravette), a member of the House Education Committee, said she has heard from several teachers with the same concern. She said she understood Clowney’s point but believed the bill would give teachers a break from being “in the middle” of “two groups battling.”

“It’s been my experience with teachers that they’re just looking for a path of least resistance so they can go and teach their academic course,” Duke said.

God created night and day, but we as a society know that dawn and dusk exist, so I believe that there is space for transgender people here.

– Ethan Avanzino, speaking against House Bill 1468 before the House Education Committee

Long said House Bill 1468 “does not stop a student from believing whatever they want about themselves” and would not ban the use of students’ preferred pronouns and names. School employees would be allowed to use them, but only with parents’ consent, and they would simply have the choice not to use them, he said.

“People who object to using incorrect pronouns [do so] because they really deeply feel this is wrong,” he said. “It’s not because they hate the student. In fact, I think they believe it’s harmful to the student, and they don’t want to participate in harming a child.”

McCullough, a former teacher, had a different perspective.

“When that teacher perpetuates a harmful behavior on a student, don’t think that it will not trickle down to peer behavior as well,” she said.

She added that teachers make accommodations for students on a regular basis without being required by law to do so.

“This bill will also police our teachers in their own classrooms and burden our public schools with more government and legislative overreach,” McCullough said.

House Minority Whip Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) said she also saw the legislation as unnecessary, especially since Long said he was aware of a teacher’s anxieties but no firings or other punishments.

“We’re usurping parental and local control to create a law to address an issue that is not an issue,” Flowers said.

Apparent viewpoint discrimination

Flowers also voted against the bill in the House Education Committee on March 14 after Avanzino’s testimony. She said she could relate to feeling frustrated about other people’s references to her identity, specifically her racial identity, when she was a child.

Proposed ban on teachers using transgender pronouns heads to Arkansas Senate
Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) asks a question about House Bill 1468 during the House Education Committee meeting March 14, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

“While that’s not the same, I did experience where I wanted to be called African-American [instead of Black or other terms] and people refused to call me that,” Flowers said. “…I can’t imagine saying to someone, ‘My name is Vivian, call me Vivian or call me Viv,’ and for someone to say it’s against their religion for them to call me who I say that I am.”

Flowers was absent from the March 9 meeting. Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) voted against the bill at both meetings and said she did not believe a person’s identity is “a matter of public concern.”

McCullough said the same thing Monday on the House floor. She also said House Bill 1468 would create a policy based on viewpoint discrimination and would likely be challenged in court on a First Amendment basis.

“I’m not an attorney, and I’m not up here to argue religion either, but I’ve always thought the main tenets of any religion are about respecting the dignity of people and loving them, and I don’t believe this bill achieves that goal on either level,” McCullough said. “I’m not here to challenge beliefs. I’m here to challenge actions.”

Avanzino told the Education Committee that he was raised as a Christian and believes Jesus calls people to love and accept others, not to use religious freedom “to disrespect someone and their wishes.”

He cited the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis to support his statements.

“God created night and day, but we as a society know that dawn and dusk exist,” Avanzino said. “So I believe that there is space for transgender people here, and respecting their names and pronouns is inherently important for us to move on as a society and love one another.”

The bill will next be heard by the Senate Education Committee.