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‘Culture war’ legislation a focus of Republicans in Arkansas General Assembly

The Arkansas State Capitol building is seen in this file photo from February 2023.
Daniel Breen
The Arkansas State Capitol building is seen in this file photo from February 2023.

In addition to education and criminal justice reform, this year’s legislative session has also seen culture war related issues at the forefront. Various bills have been filed, passed by one chamber of the legislature or signed into law by Gov. Sarah Sanders that deals with cultural issues.

Laura Kellams, the Northwest Arkansas director for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said labeling legislation as culture war issues can downplay the impact legislation has on the lives of citizens.

“We don’t consider the culture war when we’re determining whether or not to be for or against a bill. We’re focused on a bill’s ability to have an impact on children,” she said.

Kellams cited SB71 as an example of a bill that is cultural in nature but has an impact on education and opportunity for children. The bill was filed by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, and was described by him as a way to end affirmative action in Arkansas state government and higher education. Kellams said affirmative action programs are necessary for student success.

“This bill would significantly harm that effort because it would eliminate targeted scholarships meant to draw Black, Indigenous and other people of color into teaching careers in hard-to-recruit areas like the Delta. These programs were created very purposely because the research shows that they make big and positive differences in children’s educational outcomes,” she said.

According to a study from John Hopkins University, having one Black teacher in elementary school makes Black children more likely to graduate high school and it also makes them more likely to enroll in college. While testifying for the bill, Sullivan has said the bill won’t end programs that critics worry will be ended. He has argued his bill will bring equality to the state.

Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and former Democratic nominee for Secretary of State, has raised concerns that Sullivan’s bill would outlaw the Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Division (MWOBE), which is under the supervision of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC).

According to the AEDC, the MWOBE facilitates the growth, development and expansion of minority and women-owned businesses by helping them gain access to information, new market opportunities and financial resources. Sen. President Pro Temp Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said mentorship opportunities will still be available for AEDC even with this bill being passed.

“If we want to mentor women, we can mentor women. We can mentor people of all colors and of all races. If we’re going to have mentor programs, we should be inclusive. … If we want to do something about sexism and racism, I think we should just stop talking about it. We should treat everyone equally and fair and that’s everyone,” he said.

On March 14, Gov. Sanders signed into law – Act 274 – a bill that would allow healthcare professionals to be sued for medical practice for gender-affirming procedures. According to SB199, gender transition procedures include surgical service and prescribed drugs that alter physical or anatomical characteristics that are typical for the individual’s biological sex. Bill opponents said the bill limits transgender children from receiving the healthcare that they need.

Alexa Henning, communications director for Sanders, said the governor supports the bill because it protects kids.

“Only in the far-left’s woke vision of America is it not appropriate to protect children,” Henning said.

There have also been so-called “bathroom bills” filed that critics say target the transgender community. Gov. Sanders has signed into law HB1156, now Act 317, which doesn’t allow individuals using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. Kellams also cited this bill as an example of a culture-related issue that could lead to unintended harm.

“Everyone wants kids to be safe in school bathrooms. But there’s no research to support the notion that transgender students pose a threat when they use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Instead, the research shows that three-quarters of transgender children surveyed felt unsafe at school. And transgender people are at very high-risk of experiencing violence, starting even before adolescence,” she said. “This bill was written under the premise that it will ensure student safety. Instead, it will put some of our most vulnerable students in harm’s way.”

In a statement to the Associated Press, Sanders’ administration believes the bill will protect children.

“The Governor has said she will sign laws that focus on protecting and educating our kids, not indoctrinating them and believes our schools are no place for the radical left’s woke agenda,” Alexa Henning, Sanders’ spokesperson, said. “Arkansas isn’t going to rewrite the rules of biology just to please a handful of far-left advocates.”

Grant Tenille, chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said the Republicans are the reason for the emergence of culture-related issues, which he sees as harmful. Tenille said he believes the Republicans are focusing on culture-related issues as a way to excite their base.

“There’s no Democratic bill that’s been filed that attacks any individual’s way of life that I can think of, and I’d be happy if somebody could tell me,” he said. “I think that by-and-large, these bills are designed to excite and inflame the base of the Republican Party in Arkansas which is largely rural and evangelical.”

Hester said the Republican party is fulfilling the promises they made with their voters and said such bills indeed do energize conservative voters. Hester disagreed with Tenille and said Republicans are solving issues that need to be addressed that both Democrats and Republicans want to see solved.

“We see the national trend of boys using girls’ bathrooms. On a national level young ladies with integrity are forced to share locker rooms with men and it’s not just acceptable. People in Arkansas don’t want this,” he said.

Cody Hiland, Republican Party of Arkansas chairman, agreed with Hester about the reason why cultural issues have been brought up during the legislative session. He said Republicans in the House and Senate campaigned on these issues.

“The truth is the culture war was brought to them, it’s fresh in the minds of the people of the state,” Hiland has said.

• HB1307, now Act 411, prevents Arkansas from investing in publicly-held companies engaged in ESG (environmental, social and governance) actions. Republicans criticize ESG as unnecessary “woke” corporate polity. At the national level, Congress passed a bill similar to HB1307, but was vetoed by President Joe Biden.

• Another bill relating to schools and transgender students is HB1468, which bans teachers from calling students by their preferred pronouns unless the parent approves of the pronoun. As of April 5, the legislation has not been passed in the Senate.

• SB270, now awaiting the governor’s signature, would charge someone with a misdemeanor for refusing to or making an attempt to leave, if they are in the bathroom of the opposite sex while a child is present. The bill was revised to add the language that it would only be a crime if the person enters the bathroom for the “purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire.” The bill passed in the House Judiciary Committee but still hasn’t been voted on by the full House.

• Gov. Sanders signed into law legislation that would allow for an anti-abortion monument to be placed at the state Capitol. SB307, now Act 310 requires the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission to handle the design of the monument.

• A bill has passed the House to regulate libraries. The bill still needs to pass the Senate and be signed into law by Sanders. SB81, now Act 372, would allow for books to be challenged in public libraries, with library officials having the option to appeal the challenge with the local and city government. Republicans have said this bill is needed to challenge books they have found in libraries that are inappropriate.

• SB43, now Act 131 classifies drag performances as “adult-oriented business.” The bill bans drag shows from being performed on public property.

• HB1615 was filed to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and create the Conscience Protection Act. HB1615 would allow for businesses whose religious exercise was “burdened” to sue the state. The bill has passed the House, but has not been considered in the Senate. Last year, Arkansas voters in 2022 rejected the Government Burden of Free Exercise of Religion Amendment which was similar to the language in HB1615.