Arkansas panel closer to public building 'bathroom bill'

Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas Senate committee moved closer Wednesday to approving a bill to require that people in public schools and government buildings use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their birth gender, despite fears that the move could lead to boycotts and a warning from the governor that the state doesn't need such a law.

Republican Sen. Linda Collins-Smith wants certain facilities in government buildings, including schools, limited to members of only one sex if multiple people will use it at the same time. A similar law in North Carolina prompted the NBA and NCAA to move major sporting events out of the state.

Collins-Smith's bill would not apply to private businesses, and governments could provide family restrooms or single-occupancy restrooms. She said her bill was not the same as North Carolina's, though operators of public entertainment venues said the perception could still lead to a loss of business.

Gretchen Hall, the director of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Judiciary Committee that workers at her venues would have a difficult time determining who belonged where. Speaking of a man who dresses as a woman, "How would we know that person's birth certificate is actually male?"

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has opposed the legislation.

The panel's public hearing came the same day the Texas Senate advanced similar legislation, drawing boycott threats and warnings that the withdrawal of national sporting events could cost that state millions of dollars.

A Judiciary Committee member who had backed a separate "bathroom bill" was absent Wednesday, leaving Collins-Smith unsure whether her measure would move on. She removed it from consideration and the chairman set its return for Monday.

Jerry Cox, the director of the Arkansas Family Council, told the committee that schools, their teachers and administrators could be held liable if the state allowed students of different genders use the same private space.

"Imagine how many lawsuits you are going to have if a school sets a policy where you do have boys and girls in the same facility and where girls are in the state of undress around boys," Cox said.

The risk of losing major sporting events isn't as great as in North Carolina or in Texas — North Carolina lost seven NCAA championship events, including first- and second-round basketball tournament events this week — but Arkansas still has high-profile programs. The University of Arkansas track team has hosted national meets and its baseball team has hosted regionals and super-regionals. The state has also hosted men's and women's NCAA basketball tournament games.

When introducing the bill last week, Collins-Smith said it "sets a baseline for privacy," particularly among students. It was introduced after President Donald Trump revoked an Obama-era directive that told public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender.

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