GOP state Rep. Mary Bentley has been very busy doing what religious conservatives might say is the lord’s work in the Arkansas state legislature.
A fourth-term member of the House, Bentley has introduced two seemingly anti-science bills in the past month — HB 1701 and HB 1749 — that enact what some on the religious right might celebrate as Bible-sanctioned policies targeting children.
HB 1701, filed on March 11, stipulates that K-12 teachers in a “science class at a public school or open-enrollment public charter school may teach creationism as a theory of how the earth came to exist.” The bill, later passed in the House on April 7, does not require creationism to be taught by K-12, but nevertheless reinvigorates debate around an issue which the state of Arkansas has not touched since the early 80s.
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Back in 1981, as NPR later recounted, Arkansas adopted a law that required “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism in the classroom, which sparked a fiery legal battle and resulted in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suing in federal court, arguing that the state’s new law was unconstitutional for promoting religion in the public school system. In 1982, U.S. District Judge William R. Overton scrapped the law on the grounds that it violated the constitutionally-mandated separation between church and state (i.e. the Establishment Clause.)
Bentley’s other recent bill, HB 1749, filed just five days after HB 1701 and passed by the House just weeks later, mandates that public school teachers and other public employees are “not required to use a pronoun, title, or other word to identify a public school student as male female that is inconsistent with the public school student’s biological sex.” According to the bill, any employee that “faces adverse action as a result of a violation” of the law is “eligible for remedies afforded under…the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.”
In Religion Dispatches, Andrew L. Seidel, a constitutional and civil rights attorney, pointed out in a scathing piece that, although the bills tackle two independent issues, they both point to the “undeniable link between [Bentley’s] bigotry and creationism.”
“For Bentley, creationism dictates her anti-trans views,” he wrote. “For Bentley, the Bible demands her bigotry. And it’s not enough that she believes it, she wants the machinery of the state to push this creationism in public school classrooms. That is, of course, unconstitutional.”
In a floor speech delivered last month, which she transcribed in a subsequent Facebook post, Bentley expressed: “Father God is proud of who he created each of us to be and to deny who you are is to deny that he created you […] to deny who you are and were created to be is to deny Him.”
Bentley, Seidel argued, is “legislating her holy book and denying citizens their rights because she sees the very existence of LGBTQ people as a denial of her god, a hateful religious belief she wants preached to captive audiences of schoolchildren across the state.”
This isn’t Bentley’s first go-around with creationism in the classroom.
Back in 2017, the Republican introduced HB 2050 to “amend the Arkansas Code” by “allow[ing] public school teachers to teach creationism and intelligent design as theories alongside the teaching of the origins of the earth and the theory of evolution.” Bentley has vehemently defended HB 2050 on account of its potential to offer good-spirited “discussion” and “debate in the classroom.” She said, “I think our students learn more when they discuss it and debate it in the classroom and look at different scientific theories. I think we can look at them and learn from them all. I really do,” she said.
Other state lawmakers across the aisle don’t share her views.
“Why would we do this when the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it is illegal to do that?” Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D, pressed Bentley on the House floor.
Senate Minority Leader Keith Keith Ingram, D, told Salon that Bentley’s most recent push with HB 1749 seemed to come out of nowhere.
“I don’t think any of us when we came in here in January anticipated a piece of legislation” like HB 1749. “I don’t think it’s workable. The most important thing is the child is in a classroom getting an education.”
Although both HB 1749 and HB 1701 are both Republican-backed, he expressed doubt that House Republicans would see unanimous support from their colleagues in the Senate. “I haven’t talked to my Republican colleagues about either one of these, but I would think there would probably be spirited discussion within their caucus about both of these. It strikes me as something that would not be a lockstep vote on the Republican side.”
“Hopefully,” he added, “the Senate can be more a voice of reason.”
Salon reached out to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson on whether he plans to sign the bill in support of creationism in schools should it reach his desk but have not received comment at the time of publishing.