Arkansas House passes school bathroom bill, heads to Senate

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas House on Wednesday passed legislation barring transgender people in public schools from using gender-consistent bathrooms, while a Legislative Body endorsed a measure to limit drag performances in the state.

The bills were advanced through the Republican-majority legislature two years after lawmakers approved restrictions on transgender youth, including a ban on gender-affirming childcare that was blocked by a federal judge.

Opponents of the bathroom law said it sidelined transgender students, who are already at high risk of bullying, and said it was a sign of misplaced priorities in the legislature.

“When I talk to my constituents, they worry about a lot of things, but I never hear about bathrooms,” said Democratic Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House Minority Leader and the only openly gay member of the state Legislature, ahead of the vote.

Passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 80 to 10, the legislation applies to multi-person restrooms and locker rooms in public schools and charter schools serving from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers, principals and superintendents who violate the measure could be fined by a state body, and parents could file lawsuits to enforce the restriction.

The bill now goes to the Republican-majority Senate. The Republican sponsor of the bill said she introduced it after being approached by members of the school board in the central Arkansas city of Conway, which enacted a similar policy last year.

“Every child in our schools has the right to privacy and to feel safe and comfortable in the bathroom they are required to go to,” Republican Representative Mary Bentley said ahead of the vote.

A sweeping bathroom law was enacted in North Carolina in 2016, but was repealed a year later after sparking boycotts and protests. Arkansas is one of several states that have proposed school toilet bills.

Similar laws were enacted in Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Lawsuits have been filed against Oklahoma and Tennessee’s restrictions. Bentley has cited a federal appeals court ruling that upheld a similar policy in a Florida school district last year. Two other appellate courts have upheld the right of transgender students to use the gender-consistent bathroom.

The bathroom bill received its first approval hours after a House committee pushed ahead with legislation restricting drag services. The measure, now up for a vote in the House of Representatives, would make Arkansas the first state to restrict drag shows.

Drag story hours – in which drag queens read books to children – and other events featuring drag performers have prompted protests from right-wing activists who see them as harmful to children.

The bill originally classified drag performances as adult-oriented businesses, the same category used for strip clubs and adult theater, and banned them from public property. Legislation was amended on Wednesday to remove the reference to drag shows but appears to impose the same restrictions on them by creating a new category of “adult-oriented performances”.

The new version of the bill defines adult-oriented performances as performances of people who are nude or semi-nude and which aim to appeal to “lustful” interests, a term not defined in the legislation. She also defines such performances as “deliberate exposure.” an anatomical area or prosthetic genitals or breasts, or with a specific sexual activity.

Opponents said the bill, as amended, could go well beyond restricting drag performances.

“At its core, it’s really trying to appeal to the LGBTQ population and regulate the speech that affects us all and transcend the right of parents to raise their own children,” Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas told The Amendment hasn’t fixed any of these fatal problems.”

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