January 5th, 2012
11:42 AM ET

Critics say proposed Tenn. bill could enable harassment in schools

A proposed bill that will be debated in Tennessee would create a loophole in state schools' anti-discrimination laws that could protect students who engage in harassment if it falls under their religious or political beliefs, opponents of the bill told CNN.

Currently schools in the state are being required to adopt policies that prohibit harassment and bullying.

Supporters of the bill say their goal is to make sure whatever policies are implemented will keep in mind a student’s freedom of expression and protect the student from being punished merely for expressing their views so long as they aren’t threatening harm or damaging property.

“This bill clarifies that the policy may not be construed or interpreted to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of students and may not prohibit their expression of religious, philosophical, or political views as long as such expression does not include a threat of physical harm to a student or of damage to a student's property,” the bill states.

Read the proposed bill (PDF)

But opponents say it will create an dangerous exemption that allows those who condemn homosexuality to openly harass gay students strictly because of their religious views without  punishment - so long as they don't actually harm them.

The bill, which was introduced in 2011 in the House and Senate, has gained attention after the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) announced it would be one of their highest priorities for the year. The sponsors of the bills did not return calls for comment about where discussion on the bill stood.

The group's December newsletter says it hopes "to make sure [the law] protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Because of the specific protection requested for religious and political views, activists for the LGBT communities fear the law may be sending the wrong message to students that it would be OK to harass each other under the cloak of religious or political views.

Chris Sanders, chairman of the Nashville committee of the Tennessee Equality Project, told CNN he has major concerns about what kind of climate the bill would create in areas that don’t have support for those being harassed - regardless of whether it is over their sexual orientation. But he said increasingly, much of the harassing of minorities right now did concern homosexuality.

Sanders, for example, pointed to a scenario where a seventh-grade boy, who was perceived as gay, would encounter another child who quoted the Bible and told him that if he were with another man he should not be permitted to live.

“If you were that middle school student, what would you think was going to happen to you?” he said. “It’s not so much that I think another seventh-grader would pick up a stone and throw it at another child or hit him with it, but it’s about the terror in the child who is, or is perceived to be, gay who has to live with that constantly.”

Sanders said he hopes that legislators choose to enact a full anti-discrimination policy, but believes because they won’t do that, the only way to curb his concerns are for the bill to be pulled entirely.

He hopes instead of legislators pushing for this protection, the focus should instead be put on community efforts to increase discussions and understanding of different lifestyles.

He noted the death of Jacob Rogers, in Ashland City, Tennessee, who committed suicide after he was said to have experienced years of anti-gay harassment at school. Sanders said the community there has made great strides to try to change the attitudes in schools to prevent incidents like this occurring again, but this bill would be a step backward in that effort.

“A lot of us in Nashville and other cities of Tennessee regularly face the embarrassment that our state leaders are taking the state in the wrong direction while many of our local communities are trying to go in the right direction,” Sanders said.

FACT, and its founder David Fowler, say the bill is about protecting the rights of students.

"[It] is wrong to bully people because of their sexual practices. But it's wrong to bully people period,” the group said according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “The larger lesson here is that these tragedies are often the rotten fruit of the all-about-me individualistic culture that comes when we deny the existence of God and his image in us. When life and people become cheap, tragedy becomes the result."

Fowler,who did not return CNN's calls requesting a comment, was quoted by the Times Free Press as saying he agreed with Sanders that sexual orientation isn't the only issue.

[“Homosexuals are] “not the only people who get insulted,” Fowler was quoted as saying. “The thing we need to concentrate on is not whether the characteristics of the victim justify being protected, but on the conduct of the person engaging in the bullying, while respecting constitutional rights."

But Jonathan Cole, the president of the Tennessee Equality Project, wrote on his group’s website that the decision to grant specific protections in school policies for religious and political beliefs represented a “dangerous movement” that would make students less safe in the schools.

“If made into law, FACT would give students a 'license to bully' that allows them to hide their irrational biases behind an extreme religious belief,” Cole wrote in a blog post.  

“It's time for Tennesseans to stop using children as pawns for social, religious and political agendas. We need to be focusing on ways to ensure that Tennessee students receive an education free from bullying, harassment and intimidation.”

Cole added that he hoped parents, teachers and community leaders would take the time to have a conversation about the issue with government representatives.

“The health and welfare of Tennessee children may depend on it,” he said.

soundoff (266 Responses)
  1. Ryan

    This proposed bill is ridiculous. I can't stand when one person says something that offends someone else. We should make an opposite bill...we should make it a criminal offense for an adult to see it and say nothing, and for adults to bully one another as well! Clearly, we need the government to instruct us in moral values with legislation, because we'd never be able to function as a society otherwise.

    Fun fact – 1 – I'm obviously trolling. 2 – I was bullied growing up. 3 – I currently own two houses. 4 – I'm married to a beautiful woman. 5 – I have a high paying job and own two houses. 6 – I served in the military and fought in two wars. 7 – I am not yet 30 years old. 8 – I wish no ill will toward the kids whom were simply being kids and learning right from wrong by their own mistakes, instead of holding a grudge to legislate against kids from doing the same thing now.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • tonya

      We have kids who cannot cope with ANYTHING because we interfere too much or too little.. we suck at balance in this country.. PERIOD

      January 5, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • tonya

      You may be trolling, but I'm in education, and you wouldn't BELIEVE what parents are trying to make me believe is "BULLYING".. especially when the kids played together yesterday, held hands at lunch today, and had a disagreement at 2 pm, but then sat together on the bus on the way home. How is that bullying on either child's part?

      January 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      tonya – I agree with you 100%. Hypersensitivity in America is toxic to social progression. Period.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. If people really believed in Jesus...

    ...they would obey his words.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. niz

    Students do not have the right of free speech in schools. That would lead to chaos. Schools can control attire, hairstyles, and speech that may incite other students and disrupt the classroom.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • tonya

      I agree.. our society is going that way, so why not prepare them for the fact that they have absolutely no say in anything, even though one day they will pay taxes...

      January 5, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ???

    I am not quite sure what this bill is saying as far as defining bullying goes, but if you ask me there is a line that is drawn when using free speech. Yes, people have the right to express their political views (and religious). However there is a line that is drawn: You can say I believe this and that,but if you say I hate this and that because I believe so and so, then you have officially violated your first amendment rights by making a statement of malice (e.g. prejudice in the form wanting to emotionally/physically/physcologically hurt someone due to race, gender, orientation, religion, disability, etc.) The fact that this new law would bring more of the mentioned above remains unclear in my eyes. I suggest that maybe test this law using scientific analysis (such as putting a group of humans in one room and see how they respond to the law's change) and to understand the actual civic nature this law might bring. Assuming this new law would bring this positive/negative into the classroom is overthinking it a bit unless similar laws have been passed in other states but I have no knowledge of this at all.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

      - Relic of pre-21st century non hypersensitive child rearing methods.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      I heard of that saying before many times and I have no idea what exactly you are trying to imply per se.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      Sticks and stones may break my bones...was aound when ADULTS chose to make wars. They didn't take their own advice either and they still don't (has nothing to do with parenting styles at all).

      January 5, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      All adults choose to make war? Oh, that reminds me! I have to renew my contract with the devil! (ahem sarcasm).

      January 5, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. @Ryan

    Great story. And true. Without government imposed limits, people would be driving 115 mph in many areas of their chosen lifestyles. Like if it was legal to hump your own dog. There are Americans who would actually begin doing this in the open. Of course there are numerous examples of other illegal things would be done in public if not for the law. The Law is what protects us from each other.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      This is some pretty interesting speculation. This is the typical take-it-as-far-from-reality argument that people like to give, based solely on personal speculation and with complete disregard for societal norms, which people like to throw at me when they try justifying the importance of their own goofy religious ideas in government as well.

      Have you such little faith in humanity and society? Would you, or any member of your family, consciously and willingly conduct the activities you have mentioned, in the manner in which you have mentioned, if the government babysat us less? Let's think about everything that there ISN'T currently a law about. Tell me why people aren't running around doing any number of these types of absurd things right now? Society chooses to endorse behavior or otherwise. It's none of the government's business. The thing that fear mongers like to do is spin the argument and insist that if the government doesn't create a law one way or another, the government (henceforth society) will endorse and indulge themselves in ridiculous things. I can go hump my toaster right now, legally, but I'm not going to. Know why? Because it's completely asinine to suggest it.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      Good point, Ryan. It makes sense that even though laws are in place for reasons of protection, it is also saying that there is a logical side to some of these laws. For example, would I drive 120 mph to get from point A to point B even though the driving limit is 55 mph? No, not because it is the law,but that it is extremely dangerous and completely idiotic to do so in the first place for obvious reasons. It's like putting one's hand into a blender; would that really be a logical thing to do? No.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reggie from LA

      Ryan,???? (hope that was the right number of "?"
      Points well taken, but did you guys see where lunkhead drove at 120 mph in the state park, shot a nice ranger and ran off with one shoe and a tee shirt into the frozen north? It shouldn't surprise you what folks will do without externally imposed limits. Guys, people for a great part, are fools who need to be protected from themselves and us protected from them. Sorry. I made up the 120 mph part for effect. Could have happened though.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      Actually it's three ?'s. Here is where the dark irony comes in (oh I love dark irony). Unfortunately, the news, internet, people, ect, cannot report every single breach in law everyday, moronic or not. Humans have rebeled against certain laws. To what end will criminal activity cease to exist? Never. We can have all the police, doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, whatever, but even in times of peace, there is still crime amoung us. We can reduce crime rates but no matter what we do, garbage happens. It is bascially saying there is no perfect utopia, no perfect world. In this universe, these are the things we have to live with everyday so as long as there are others to suppress for good reason. I am talking about everywhere. How can we account for these enforcers of justice, well, not all of them. Sorry that is life, deal with it.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Big Monsters make little ones.

    Just like the battered wife who changes her story when the cops arrive, many kids do holler "bully" and then change their story. It worked for mom. Kept dad off her ass for a while. Hence the increase in reported cases. That, and kids struggling with adult political correctness.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy©

    @@ryan:
    Why the reference to weird doggy s e x? What purpose did *that* serve?
    Where is your *mind* at?

    Ewwww!

    January 5, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bestiality

    Yes. It is but one example of laws that keep Americans from doing what they really want to do.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©

    You need to speak plainly, Mmmmm. You have said nothing anyone but yourself can understand.
    Speak in English, not Mmmm parables, please.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy©

    @Bestiality:
    I do not know of one person who wants to do that.
    If you do, you need to seek a better crowd to associate with.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy©

    @Ryan:
    Your 10:09 post was spot on.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. M in Oz

    Harassment is not mentioned in the bible as a course of action for followers. And what political or religious beliefs really have harassment as a requirement?

    January 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bestiality

    Make it legal to marry your own pet and see what happens. The Law is the ONLY thing holding many of US back from doing what our hearts desire. In the cases of some old laws, people had to sneak around and hide their chosen lifestyles from the Law. Then laws changed and people began doing what was once hidden right out in the open. Lifestyle choices determine Law, eventually.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tim

    Mmmmm:
    "duplicity bones fall constantly from your mouth…I wonder if you have great influence…you are gonna be held accountable for that influence and those bones…for many people look to you in your mouth."

    What the hell does THAT mean? Is that a quote from somewhere?

    January 5, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      Duplicity = Manipulating people by telling different people different things (or people pleasing depending on the case). The bones are I would say "nothing" or no living or real substance. So according to that quote duplicitous people are saying nothing of real value and what they say will make them accountable when many people notice the words were manipulation.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bestiality

    You probably don't know very many bank robbers either.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
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