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. BIG Monsters make little monsters

    Where do you think kids who are bullies learn how to bully? 'Bully' isn't something you are born with nor is it taught in school. It is learned behavior from home. If a kid is raised in an violent environment, he will act-out this violence in public. Nip it in the bud. Laws that recognize the parents role in creating bullies need to be enacted. Flush your "problem child" mentality and welcome yourself to reality. BIG Monsters make little monsters.

    January 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy©

    No, no, no, a thousand times NO!
    This bill, as it stands, gives a wink and a nod to the bullies who would pick on other kids they *percieve* as being gay...whether they are or not.
    No one has the right to just say whatever the hell they want – with no fear of repercussions – citing their first amendment rights!
    Words *hurt* too, friends...and those don't heal nearly as fast as a physical wound.

    It is not a political or religious right to demean others, no matter how they want to sugar-coat it; call it what it is: bullying!

    January 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Unfortunately, banasy, I cannot agree with your position on this issue. Freedom of political speech is central to a free and open society. We have the absolute right to freedom of political speech (and to express our religious views – no matter how irrational they may be). If you work to curb these rights for others, expect to have no solid ground to stand on when your rights are stripped from you. As a gay man I hope they can find a responsible, reasonable balance that protects children from threats and bullying, but also respects the RIGHTS of Americans to express their political and religious views freely. We do not have a right to live insult and conflict free lives. Somewhere a level headed administrator of the school needs to determine if harassing and unacceptable behavior happened in that situation – and take appropriate action.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      disagree patrick, a person has more right not to be harassed than a person has to spout hate.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • sigh

      Sadly these laws exist and might *have* to exist because administrators have repeatedly decided not to act even in cases of extreme and constant voting. I wish this didn't have to be the case.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • sigh

      *bullying, was that a Freudian-style election slip?

      January 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jean

    Must be hateful Republican racists behind this bill. This is NOT right!!! This should NOT be passed!! It is tough being a kid these days and then to put up with bullying?! We may hear of more sucides because of this! What's becoming of young people, of our nation? This is shameful...........I cannot believe we allow our lawmakers to do this!

    January 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. yannaes

    You go Tennessee!

    January 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Riri

      E S A Die loser!

      January 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ricky

    These bigot rednecks just wont give up.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • yannaes

      They are just trying to avoid to much red a@#. Go Ten., we love ya.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. livinlife420

    Gotta love these "red" states....all in the name of christ. What a joke...I live in tennessee and this bill is disgusting, we need all of these religious freaks to go far far away. I think Texas is big enough for all the religous idiots to live in and leave the rest of the states to people who want tolerance, freedom and love. Or on second hand we can give them Mississippi too but leave lousiana alone cause we need our fun at Mardi Gras!

    January 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      You cannot legislate tolerance or love .. and to try to do so errodes the freedom you say you want for yourself. Check yourself before you reck yourself!

      January 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • livinlife420

      As you can see by the end of my post.....it was all in jest! As far as legislate anything..ha ha that is the point of the article...quit trying to legislate what I write.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      After your rant, dont you think its ironic that you would speak of tolerance? Where is yours????

      January 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Yes ... what you say livinlife420. Your sarcasm was completely clear. We all knew you were, in fact, for this bill and actually ridiculing those who were against it. Keep on living life the 420 way! (Oh, sarcasm fits me well ... yummy)

      January 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. IndiGirl

    And yet the religious zealots expect tolerance of their own behavior?
    Not hardly.

    You get what you give.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Intolerance begets intolerance. Will you be where it stops? Or will you perpetuate it as well?

      January 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy-James

      Patrick, unmitigated persecution only begets martyrs. Most school children do not even know what a martyr is, let alone want to be one. Your arguments of freedom are folly; we already legislate all types of damaging speech - especially at schools.

      January 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Shane

    I hate to admit l live in tennessee we are not all stupid rednecks just about 90 percent of us are. Its pretty sad that a bill like this even exist these bible thumpping hicks will eventually evolve into people. So its ok to bash gay people just because your paper god says so just look its right there in the good book wow. What happens next? Maybe they will snap out of it when they realize that all religion is man made. There is no god or allah or whoever you imbeciles worship. Yea i said it l guess i will burn in the fires of hell for that lol

    January 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • livinlife420

      I agree 100%.....I have no issue with someone believing in a higher deity....just don't force it into government and laws.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Xsyntriq

      If you don't believe, then why do you think you would burn in the fires of hell?

      You may come back as a house cat but there will be no burning 😉

      January 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©

    Fortunately, Patrick, we live in a country where we can disagree without fear of reprisal from the government.

    Too bad these kids are going to be bullied just for *being*.

    They need to re-write the language.
    That's a small fix.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy©

    Hi, Jim. How are you?

    January 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chris G

    This is America! We should be able to say whatever we want, no matter how sick or demented it may be. If you dont like it, move!

    January 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike White

    I love Nashville but I'm embarrassed to tell people I'm from TN because of the idiots we have running the state. A bunch of small-minded, small-town right-wing imbeciles.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. sally

    Seperation of Church and State? Is that not a thing anymore? I thought that public schools were supposed to be free of religion and therefore shouldn't students not be allowed to spout regilious beliefs at each other in a harrassing way? If you want to go to a school where people want to hear your religious beliefs then go to a religious school and let others get on with their education WITHOUT the fear of religious persecution. Put the battles in the correct battlefields, lets save schools for math competions and spelling bees and let churches handle "who's going to hell and who's not"

    January 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bigot Parents make bigot kids

    Face it. We have a lot of racists and bigots raising children in the USA. It's where children learn this behavior first. Until there are laws that deal with dysfunctional parents, the "problem child" remains. But most of US dom't want the government telling US how to raise our kids. Catch-22 of the century next to global climate change.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      It's actually both learned and psycological. Yes, there are bullies who absorb their parents behavior at home, but everyone has different sensitivities to different lifestyles. One could live in the most hostile home environment and be the most goldenhearted being in the world, while another could live in a peaceful and quiet home environment, and be spoiled rotten to the core. Hey, not all parents are to blame. It is like saying all parents are dysfunctional, including mine.

      January 6, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  15. Xsyntriq

    People still don't seem to get that words can sometimes do more harm than actually being hit. They get into your head and stay there, taking up residence and making themselves comfortable. They lay low but come to visit (haunt) when you least expect or want them to. They dine on your psyche and esteem, making a buffet of your emotions until you feel so empty and fragile that a breeze could shatter you into a thousand pieces.

    The folks that have proposed this bill and the folks that agree with it should all be thumped upside the head with their own bibles.

    I have no wings (left or right). I'm just an ordinary person living an ordinary life and trying to do no harm because I don't want harm done to me.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
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