A bill aimed at protecting public school students’ free speech rights by banning discrimination based on religious viewpoint that was recently passed by a near unanimous vote of the Tennessee State Legislature is currently on the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R) awaiting his signature.
But the bill has come under attack by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) activists, who claim it is a “state- sponsored license to bully”.
The “Religious Viewpoints AntidiscriminationAct,” similar to a bill of the same name enacted in Texas, was prompted by a recent incident in which a 10-year-old Memphis girl was told by her teacher that she could not write about God in an essay about who her “idol” was, but that she could write about Michael Jackson, according to State Senator Ferrell Haile (R-District 18), one of the bill’s sponsors.
“I believe that it (the bill) clarifies and I think it also puts this (religion) on a level playing field with any other topic that is allowed for papers, homework, discussion or a public forum, whatever that might be, that this just puts it all on a level playing field.” Haile told CNSNews.com.
“If someone wants to write a paper on God, on Jehovah God, or on Jesus Christ, or on the Holy Spirit, whatever that topic might be, Mohammad, whatever the topic might be that has religious content, that it be graded on the same level as if they were writing about their favorite rock star. And there have been situations where a student has written a paper about God that was disallowed, but yet they turned around and the second paper they wrote, their idol was a rock star, and that paper was allowed.
“Why was one allowed and the other one not?” Haile asked. “Just because of the content. The paper needs to be graded on how the paper’s written, on the standard that is expected of the student, rather than disallowing it because of one content or the other.”
The bill states that a Local Education Agency (LEA) “shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the LEA treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.” (See TN HB1547.pdf)
“In addition to codifying Supreme Court precedents, this bill also places, in Tennessee code, guidance published by the U.S. Department of Education. There have been increasing instances of school officials who have felt compelled to quash students’ religious expressions for fear of lawsuits – even when the quashing itself is illegal,” Tennessee Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-District 45), the bill’s co-sponsor in the House, told CNSNews.com.
However, the bill, which cleared the state Senate 32-0 and passed by a lopsided 90-2 vote in the House, has generated opposition from the ACLU and LGBT activists.
The ACLU released a statement saying the bill “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.”
The ACLU believes that the bill “encourages religious coercion” by “requiring local school boards to establish a system for selecting student speakers and allow those students to express their beliefs about religion in a variety of inappropriate settings, from the classroom to school-day assemblies and school events.”
LGBT advocates also oppose it. An article on The Gaily Grind claiming that the bill will “allow the bullying of LGBT students in the name of ‘religious freedom’” has even prompted a petition to the White House asking the Obama administration to challenge the legislation in court.
But Senator Haile responded to the ACLU’s claim that the bill creates “systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students,” saying, “I could come back and argue, well maybe the ACLU and their stance is an imposition on students that want to express a tenet of their faith. So I think that works both ways, and I don’t believe it comes into play here.”
Haile added that the bill’s requirement for “a method, based on neutral criteria, for the selection of student speakers at school events and graduation ceremonies” is merely a clarification of existing policies. He explained that the bill was intended “to clear up confusion and try and take what the United States, through the courts and through the Constitution, has already allowed and protected, just to clarify that.”
“There’s also in there clarification that the school prints out and states that whatever the student might say, that does not necessarily mean that’s the policy of this school,” he added, emphasizing that exceptions to student free speech are included in the bill.
“Those exceptions have been stated by the Supreme Court and they have held that constitutionally, schools can prohibit obscene speech, vulgar speech, offensive, lewd, or indecent speech, and speech promoting illegal drug use. So the court has said, school district, you can eliminate these topics of conversation. And so the courts have spoken concerning that. That’s part of this bill also.”
Rep. Rogers echoed Haile’s sentiments, saying, “The aim is to give direction and protection to schools by providing clarity to the existing laws of the land. There are no new rights created by this bill – the intent is to maintain equal rights and equal protection.”
But David Badash, writing in “The New Civil Rights Movement,” said that “attacks on LGBT people and same-sex marriage are automatically protected under this bill, offering anti-gay students a state-sponsored license to bully.” He claims the bill gives students the ability to “stand in class and say their religion says that gay people are sinners and going to hell, and that speech would be legally protected.”
The Human Rights Campaign also said that “the bill opens up state-sanctioned avenues to bully LGBT students” because “under the “religious liberties” measure, a student could be permitted to personally target an LGBT student by couching the bullying in religious terms.”
However, the bill’s sponsors say their legislation is about protecting students’ religious freedom, not about protecting bullies.
“We have a lot of anti-bullying laws in place and I do not see that whatsoever,” Senator Haile said when asked about the possibility that the bill would authorize bullying of LGBT students.
“It is important to note that the school is still very much in charge of the good order and discipline of the school and teachers are still very much in charge of assignments given,” Rep. Rogers added.
Despite repeated attempts, CNSNews.com could not reach the ACLU for comment.