A bill to require school textbooks in Arkansas to be consistent with a recently passed state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage faltered in a senate committee Wednesday. After the senate education committee voted to reject the measure, Rep. Roy Ragland, a Republican from Marshall, said he may try to revive the bill later in the session.
Ragland amended the bill in the committee to state that "no textbook, form of instruction, course, or program of study" in a public elementary or secondary school in Arkansas could promote any form of marriage contrary to that in the state constitution. In November almost 75% of Arkansas voters approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, even though there was already a state law banning same-sex marriage on the books. Ragland said he altered his bill in an effort to make it more palatable to the committee, but a divided committee voted the bill down on voice vote after some members said they feared it violated free speech rights.
Ragland told committee members his bill was needed as a preemptive strike against those who oppose the constitutional amendment. "There is an agenda from outside forces to contradict what the voters of this state approved with Amendment 3," he said. Rita Sklar, director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the change Ragland made in his bill could stifle classroom discussion on many issues. "The first version of the bill was simply silly; this is something that is harmful to the First Amendment and to intellectual discussion," she said.
Committee members were split 3-3, judging from their discussion. Democratic senator Steve Bryles of Blytheville said he didn't see a need for the legislation and agreed with Sklar's concern about its infringing on free speech. "I feel we are taking sides in this [gay marriage] debate that doesn't seem to be a problem in Arkansas," he said.
But Republican senator David Bisbee of Rogers said he didn't have a problem supporting the bill and viewed it as a simple matter of clarifying values. "We are clarifying the values that 75% of the people of Arkansas believe," he said. Ragland reiterated that he may bring a revised version of the bill back to the committee later in the session. "It isn't dead yet," he said.