On the heels of enacting into law the nation's first ban on sex-change hormone treatments or mutilating surgeries for transgender minors, the Arkansas House on Thursday passed a bill that would protect teachers from repercussions if they offend a student by refusing to use that student's preferred pronouns or name.
The bill, HB 1749, states, "An employee of a public school shall not be required to use a pronoun, title, or other word to identify a public school student as male or female that is inconsistent with the public school student's biological sex." The legislation would enable an employee of a public school who faces "adverse action" for calling a student by the wrong name or pronoun to file a legal claim for relief.
Republican state Rep. Mary Bentley, the bill's sponsor, said during debate on the House floor that the bill's purpose is to protect teachers who fear litigation for refusing to use a transgender student's preferred name.
"It's not compelling anyone's speech, it's not prohibiting anyone's speech," Bentley said. "It's helping those professors and teachers in our schools that do not want to be used for not using a certain person's pronoun."
She said that while the legislature needs to do more to protect parents and teachers, this bill is a necessary first step.
"Districts definitely need to look at this and do more. This bill is a simple bill. It has already been affirmed by the appeals court and the sixth district. All this is, is protecting our teachers, and they do feel threatened," she said.
Democratic members of the state House spoke out in opposition to the bill.
"This bill is protecting and therefore emboldening teachers who are intentionally misgendering students and therefore are intentionally severing their relationship," said Rep. Megan Godfrey.
Rep. Fred Love said that calling a transgender person by their preferred name or pronouns is simply the right thing to do if you want to be polite and respectful.
"Refer to someone as they choose to be referred to," he said. "That's not hard. That's not difficult. That's just a bit of decency and a bit of respect, and I think that's what we need to do."
The bill passed the House mostly along partisan lines, 62-21. Two Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in opposition to the legislation, which now proceeds to the state Senate.
Earlier this week, the Arkansas Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto to enact into law a ban on sex change operations or hormone treatments for transgender minors in the state.
In opposing the bill, Hutchinson argued that preventing doctors or counselors from prescribing puberty-blockers or cross-sex hormones to troubled transgender youths was tantamount to denying children health care. He also claimed that a limited government, conservative approach to governing means lawmakers should not interfere with the recommendations of medical professionals who believe administering drugs to children that can delay puberty and irreversibly alter their bodies is good medicine.