Region & State

Pronoun restrictions in Arkansas schools head to Sanders’ desk

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, explains House Bill 1468 to the Senate on April 5, 2023. The bill would require parental consent for educators’ use of names, pronouns and nicknames that do not match students’ birth certificates. | Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate

Crowell among 6 senators who did not cast vote

By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas public school teachers and professors will be required to use the pronouns and names students were assigned at birth unless parents specifically allow them to do otherwise, if Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs House Bill 1468 into law.

The Senate approved the bill along party lines Wednesday. It 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.

Even if parents provide permission to use alternate names and pronouns, teachers would not be required to use them if their religious beliefs conflict with this, bill sponsor Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, told the House and the Senate Education Committee last week.

LGBTQ rights activists have said the bill is one of many legislative attacks on transgender Arkansans’ rights this session.

Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, brought an additional perspective as a former teacher with three decades of experience.

“I know many of you are hung up on ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ and all that stuff, but that’s not all this bill does,” Chesterfield said.

The bill would prevent teachers from addressing students by any pet name or term of endearment without first receiving parental consent, which threatens the “spontaneity” of teaching, she said. Some students might simply dislike their given names and want to be called something else, she added.

Additionally, the bill applies to higher education in addition to primary and secondary, meaning that parents of students who are legal adults would still have to provide the written permission required in the bill.

“I don’t want to go back to a time when children can’t be called ‘sweetheart,’” Chesterfield said. “I don’t want to go back to a time when they can’t be called ‘dear.’ I don’t want to go back to a time when we decide that by the time they get to college, they don’t know what they want to be called.”

Chesterfield and four other Senate Democrats voted against the bill. The one remaining Democrat, Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, was absent. So were two Republicans, Ronald Caldwell of Wynne and Bryan King of Green Forest.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, voted present on House Bill 1468. Six more Republicans did not vote: Steve Crowell of Magnolia, Breanne Davis of Russellville, Jane English of North Little Rock, Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana, Missy Irvin of Mountain View and Terry Rice of Waldron.

The remaining 20 Senate Republicans voted for the bill. All five Democrats in the chamber subsequently asked for a sounding of the ballot, which required all senators who voted “yes” to be in their seats during a second roll-call.

Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, was absent, but the other 19 Republicans were present and the bill advanced.

Protection debate

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.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, the bill’s Senate sponsor, cited a federal court case in which a university professor had been reprimanded by his employer for declining a student’s request to use pronouns that did not match the ones assigned at birth.

Nicholas Meriwether sued his employer, Shawnee State University in Ohio, claiming infringement on his religious freedom. A federal judge dismissed the case, and Meriwether appealed the decision. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor in 2022.

Meriwether grew up in Conway, and his father, Robert Meriwether, was a professor and academic advisor at Hendrix College, within Johnson’s district.

“He was one of the best teachers I ever had, and if Nicholas is half the teacher his dad was, he is one great college professor,” Johnson said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, challenged Johnson’s assertion that House Bill 1468 will protect teachers from lawsuits.

“It’s got a funny way of showing it, because it creates a brand new mechanism for teachers to get sued if they don’t follow the very specific guideline that’s set forth in the bill,” Tucker said.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, added that if a transgender student does not feel safe coming out at home, House Bill 1468 would forcibly out the student.

Johnson said he was aware of this and believed parents are entitled to know what is going on in their children’s lives at school.

However, teachers are not entitled to know students’ given names, Chesterfield said. She added that she never saw a student’s birth certificate or transcript in her entire teaching career.

“At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter [what a student is called],” she said. “The only thing that should matter is: Does this child want to learn, and what can I do to help them?”