House committee advances creationism, transgender and religious freedom bills

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,831 views 

The House Education Committee advanced bills Tuesday (April 6) that would allow the teaching of creationism in schools, outline a procedure for teachers to address transgender students, protect the types of flags flown at public schools, and broaden religious speech on campuses.

House Bill 1701 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would allow K-12 public school teachers to teach the biblical story of creationism as a theory for how the Earth came to exist. Teachers would not be required to teach creationism, which the Book of Genesis describes as happening in six days, culminating in the creation of humanity. It passed on a voice vote.

Bentley said many teachers had requested such legislation. She said the Founding Fathers mentioned the Creator in the Declaration of Independence and allowed creation to be taught in classrooms. She said the odds of the Earth arising naturally are so remote that students are being done a disservice by not learning the creation story.

Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, a former classroom teacher, said any study of creationism needs to be done by changing academic standards, not passing a specific law. Rep. Stu Smith, R-Batesville, said as a former world history teacher, he would have liked to have had the ability to answer questions about his views on the subject.

In 1981, Gov. Frank White signed Act 590, which mandated creation science be treated equally with evolution in classrooms. U.S. District Judge William Overton ruled the act unconstitutional in 1982, saying creationism was a religious doctrine, not a scientific theory.

The committee also advanced an amended version of Bentley’s House Bill 1749. It would prohibit requiring public schools and higher education institutions from requiring employees to address a student by a pronoun or other word that is “inconsistent with the student’s biological sex.” The vote appeared to be 11-6.

Under the bill, public school employees who face adverse actions could bring a claim under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.

The original bill required public school employees to address students by the name and sex on their birth certificates, but Bentley introduced the amendment, which the House committee approved. The change refers the addressing of students to a registration card filled out at the beginning of each school year, she said.

Despite disbelief from some committee members, Bentley said there are school districts where students are frequently changing their gender identities. She said she introduced the bill to bring clarity for teachers and principals, and to prevent teachers from being sued for using the wrong name or pronoun. In response to a question from Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, Bentley said there haven’t been any Arkansas teachers sued for using the wrong pronoun.

In response to a question from Godfrey, Bentley said the bill would protect a teacher who intentionally uses a pronoun not preferred by the student.

The committee also passed House Bill 1816, by Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, which would allow flags flown on public school campuses to include the American flag, the Arkansas flag, the county flag where the school is located, and the school district. Schools could not prohibit the flying of those flags. Schools could also fly flags associated with a foreign delegation of students a public school is welcoming or recognizing.

The bill amends a part of the Arkansas code related to the displaying of flags on public schoolhouses and school grounds, but it also applies to students. Pilkington said the bill was precipitated by conflicts in the Clarksville High School among students displaying flags, resulting in all flags being banned. He said his superintendent wanted state guidance.

Legislators had questions about banning flags for display by students, including Arkansas Razorback flags. At one point, Pilkington said the Confederate flag and flags supporting Presidents Biden and Trump could be prohibited, including when flown by students.

Committee members also advanced House Bill 1592, the Arkansas Student Protection Act, which prohibits public schools from entering any type of transaction with an individual or entity that performs abortions. The sponsor, Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said the bill would keep groups like Planned Parenthood from offering sex education in schools.

He said that is currently happening in the Pulaski County Special School District, including the Cloverdale Middle School. He said a Freedom of Information Act request by the Family Council, a conservative organization, produced almost 1,400 pages of documents. Planned Parenthood had requested student data about student pregnancies, Lowery said.

Committee members also passed House Bill 1830 by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, the Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Act, which states that a public school student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject would be treated the same as a secular viewpoint.

School districts would be required to adopt a policy to comply with the law that would include allowing religious speech by students at limited public forums such as graduation ceremonies. Students could also express religious viewpoints while producing homework, classwork and artwork.

Committee members also advanced Senate Bill 584 by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, which would change the way the state’s lottery scholarships are funded.

Under the bill, a current $100 million trust fund account would fund next school year’s lottery scholarships. Current lottery proceeds would be saved in an account, letting the state know how much funding would be available in the fall of 2022.

The bill would ban the introduction of any bills creating new lottery-funded scholarships after the 31st day of a regular session unless three-fourths of both chambers approve. New scholarships would not take effect until a year after the scholarship was enacted. The House and Senate Education Committees would consider any new scholarship funded by state lottery funds.