Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday signed a law prohibiting transgender people at public schools from using the restroom that matches their gender identity, the first of several states expected to enact such bans this year amid a flood of bills nationwide targeting the trans community.
The bill signed by the Republican governor makes Arkansas the fourth state to place such restrictions at public schools, and it comes as bills in Idaho and Iowa also await their governor's signature. And it might be followed by an even stricter Arkansas bill criminalizing transgender adults using public restrooms that match their gender identity.
Arkansas' law, which won't take effect until later this summer, applies to multi-person restrooms and locker rooms at public schools and charter schools serving prekindergarten through 12th grade. The majority-Republican Legislature gave final approval to the bill last week.
"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 in a statement. "Arkansas isn't going to rewrite the rules of biology just to please a handful of far-left advocates."
Similar laws have been enacted in Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee, although lawsuits have been filed challenging the Oklahoma and Tennessee restrictions.
Proposals to restrict transgender people using the restroom of their choice have seen a resurgence this year, six years after North Carolina repealed its bathroom law in the wake of widespread protests and boycotts. More than two dozen bathroom bills have been filed in 17 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
"They're singling out transgender people for no other reason than dislike, disapproval and misunderstanding of who transgender youth are," said Paul Castillo, senior counsel and students' rights strategist for Lambda Legal. "And the entire school population suffers as a result of these types of bills, particularly schools and teachers and administrators who are dealing with real problems and need to focus on creating a welcome environment for every student."
The proposals are among a record number of bills filed to restrict the rights of transgender people by limiting or banning gender-affirming care for minors, banning transgender girls from school sports and restricting drag shows. Transgender people have also faced increasingly hostile rhetoric at statehouses.
Another bill pending in Arkansas goes even further than the North Carolina law by imposing criminal penalties. That proposal would allow someone to be charged with misdemeanor sexual indecency with a child if they use a public restroom or changing room of the opposite sex when a minor is present.
"It's a flagrant message from them that they refuse to respect (transgender people's) rights and humanity, to respect Arkansans' rights and humanity," said Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.
The new Arkansas law requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations, including single-person restrooms. Superintendents, principals and teachers who violate the prohibition could face fines of at least $1,000 from a state panel, and parents could also file private lawsuits to enforce the measure.
"Each child in our schools has a right to privacy and to feel safe and to feel comfortable in the bathroom they need to go to," Republican Rep. Mary Bentley, the bill's sponsor, told lawmakers earlier this year.
But Clayton Crockett, the father of a transgender child, described to lawmakers earlier this year how a similar policy adopted at his daughter's school made her feel further marginalized.
"She feels targeted, she feels discriminated against, she feels bullied, she feels singled out," Crockett said at a House panel hearing on the bill in January.
Opponents have also complained the legislation doesn't provide funding for schools that may need to build single-person restrooms to provide reasonable accommodations.
At least two federal appeals courts have upheld transgender students' rights to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. Supporters of the bill, however, have cited a federal appeals court ruling upholding a similar policy at a Florida school district last year.
The Arkansas measure won't take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns this year's session, which isn't expected to happen until next month at the earliest.
Sanders signed the bill a week after she approved legislation making it easier to sue providers of gender-affirming care to minors. That law, which also doesn't take effect until this summer, is an effort to effectively reinstate a ban on such care for minors that's been blocked by a federal judge.
Sanders earlier this month also signed a wide-ranging education bill that prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation before 5th grade. The restriction is similar to a Florida measure that critics have called the "Don't Say Gay" law.
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