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Preferred pronouns bill gains approval from Arkansas House committee

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Arkansas Legislature
Matt Sharp (left) with the group Alliance Defending Freedom speaks to members of the House Education committee Thursday alongside Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, the sponsor of House Bill 1468.

Arkansas teachers would be forbidden from referring to students by their preferred name or pronouns without parental permission under a bill making its way through the state legislature.

House Bill 1468, sponsored by Republican Rep. Wayne Long of Bradford, passed the House Education committee on a voice vote Thursday. It would require parental permission for teachers to refer to a student by a name, nickname or pronoun not aligning with the sex on their birth certificate.

Matt Sharp, senior counsel with the group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the bill is needed to help teachers avoid discipline or termination for choosing not to affirm a student’s gender identity.

“We would never command a teacher to respond to a student saying ‘Christ is risen’ with the traditional response ‘He is risen indeed,’ nor would we order a teacher to greet a Muslim student with ‘Allahu Akbar,’ because doing so would force a teacher to affirm a belief or ideology with which she does not agree,” Sharp said. “The same is true of gender ideology and preferred pronouns, but activists know if they can change the way you speak, they can ultimately change what you think and believe.”

Sharp said the bill enhances free speech protections for teachers. But Sarah Everett, policy director with the ACLU of Arkansas, said the bill also seeks to limit the First Amendment rights of educators who do want to use a student’s preferred pronouns.

“It both limits free speech and compels a teacher to speak in a way they don’t agree with, only because they support that transgender student,” Everett said. “The bill clearly discriminates based on sex in many ways, but it also very clearly violates the First Amendment in that it is viewpoint discrimination on its face.”

Tien Estell with the nonprofit group Intransitive said intentionally misgendering students could lead to worse mental health outcomes.

“The largest research study to date about suicidality among trans youth found that simply using a youth’s name and pronouns in at least one context reduced depression symptoms, reduces suicidal thoughts by one-third, and reduced suicidal behavior by 65%,” Estell said.

Sharp and Republican lawmakers said the bill is needed to shield teachers from termination or discipline for choosing to misgender students. He suggested some potential workarounds for teachers to avoid using first names and pronouns altogether when referring to students.

“We heard one teacher that, they like to elevate the dialogue in their classroom so they called all of their students scholars. So they would say, ‘Scholar Jones, Scholar Smith,” Sharp said. “And that’s the type of compromises and accommodations that this bill is going to allow while protecting teachers from what happened when they decline to use pronouns and lose their jobs as a result.”

The bill passed the committee on a voice vote, with some audible dissent, and could get a vote in the full House as soon as next week.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.