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. MinnesotaMinnie

    Well, now I am certain those who govern this great country have lost their frickin' minds! How absurd to
    protect bullying under the guise of religious freedom. This makes me sick.. Doesn't anyone in power have a conscience...or a brain? First Ammendment rights my butt...how about human rights? People (not just kids) are being set up to be slaughtered by anyone who disagrees with their beliefs, their clothes, or their haircut. One more example of how this country has become morally and ethically terminally ill! STOP the insanity NOW!!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Hyperbole, all of it hyperbole Minnie. People are being set up to be slaughtered by anyone who disagrees with their haircut?

      January 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Patrick

    You want the right to express your political beliefs? Then protect the right of others to do the same. You want a perfectly harmonious, peaceful, strife free world where every individual agrees with every other individual and nobody is ever threatened, insulted, or exposed to shame or sadness? Who doesn't, right? But it is delusional to think you’ll get any closer to it by legislating a muzzle on those you despise. Pretty soon the same blunt instrument of government will be used against you and you'll have no moral ground to stand on to fight it – hypocrisy will be your doom.

    January 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. breanna

    This makes absolutely no sense, funny how they claim to be protecting their first amendment rights yet thousands who partake in the occupy movement are being arrested for practicing their first amendment rights. Who in their right mind thinks its ok to arrest protesters and then make it legal for young children to bully others because of their religious or political views. I'm seventeen and even I kno I am not mature enough to go around bullying others because of my religious or political views, how are kids younger suppose to fully understand what their so called religious views are? Instead of taking the time on an ignorant bill how about make a bill that protects the rights of those peaceful protesters who really aren't hurting anyone. Their actually making a difference, a couple of grade school kids don't even know what they say half of the time. Geez no wonder we have such an ignorant society! Come on america step up your game.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      So you believe children (even in high school) should not be able to express their political or religious beliefs in a non-threatening way and those who disagree with you are hypocrites because protestors are being arrested? What do you say to the person who says, "don't arrest peaceful protestors who don't break the law – and let children express their political and religious views in a non-threatening way?" Do you still think that person is a hypocrite?

      January 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rod in Texas

      Your "belief" is your opinion. Opinions are like a**holes.....everyone has one but no one wants to see it or hear about it. Keep your OPINION to your self.

      January 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Thinks2010

    Will this free speech be protected when the students' direct it at teachers and school administrators and staff as well? I doubt it.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Perhaps it will. I think it should. As long as they aren't threatening. Why not? If a student wants to stand up to a conservative, Christian teacher and say, "I don't believe in intelligent design or creationism," that student should be able to do so – so long as he/she doesn't disrupt class and still completes his/her assignments. Right?

      January 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rod in Texas

    Your "view" is merely an opinion that isn't desired nor required. Keep it to yourself.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy Cracorn

      Same to you hick.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ???

    I may have said something similar on a different topic before, but I will tell you this and that:

    Unfortunately in this world, no, universe, the nature of all things is never balanced. Sure we can have a 'balanced' approach to let's say a budget, but there is no such thing as a 'balanced budget' since there are so many different ideas that can be utiliized or combined to represent different things. In nature, when living organisms come to pass, others are born, others are not. In society, crime can be reduced, but never eliminated. The dodos went extinct, but other flightless birds such as the kiwi and penguins remained extant. LIfe exists on earth because the planet lies between the sun (heat) and open space (cold). So let me ask you this: Will bullying in schools, colleges, the workplace, the park, etc, ever go away? Never. Can bullying and similar issues be reduced to safe levels. Of course.

    As the only race of intelligent beings in this universe (that we know of), we are not capable of eliminating any sort of negative behavior on a planet whose human population is about seven billion. This is one of many meanings of life. Deal with it.

    January 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jimmy Cracorn

    This must be the new south I keep hearing about. They should be so proud of the progress they've made in the last 50 years. AHH bigots when will people learn?

    January 6, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. LivinginVA

    Every time someone quotes the Bible to put down someone else, I use the following quotes back:

    "Though his hatred cover itself with guile, His wickedness shall be openly showed before the assembly." Proverbs 26:26 (ASV)
    "...he that uttereth a slander is a fool." Proverbs 10:18 (ASV)
    "So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." Matthew 23:28 NASB
    "...in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." Romans 2:1-5 ESV

    January 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Good response. Send that one to Westbrook baptist church. They seem to leave out certain verses for their own purposes.

      January 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Tngirl

    Wonderful LivingInVa.

    January 8, 2012 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. jaklumen

    Tennessee: Take a page from the late George Thompson and let schools teach kids Verbal Judo, a.k.a. "tactical communication". It's not just for law enforcement, and they are the ones that come in when bullying goes horribly wrong, anyways. Give the kids the tools they need to defend themselves with non-violent, but effective communication.

    January 9, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  11. stormy miller

    political and religous views should be protected by the constution. but to use religion to promote intolerance and bullying is nonsense. the bible and jesus did not intend for christianity to be used like this. for centuries, jesus has been hijacked by radical extremists to promote their hate and intolerance. these people need to go back and start over studies on the true meaning of christianity and stop listening to hatefilled and intolerant speeches by the likes of pat robertson, john hagee, and other hatemongers. and lawmakers need to leave religion out of legislation.

    January 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mario

    It says a lot that some religious people and political fanatics feel entitled to harass and torment the people they don't approve of, and yet if someone gives them a taste of their own medicine they whine and cry and play the victim. Religion is supposed to be separate from public schooling, not an excuse to make the lives of students miserable.

    February 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9