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. johnway

    if it passes, as it stands a philosophical belief is sufficient, so kids should go around and bully the Christians for their bigoted views, violent history, and ridiculous assertions (5K yr old earth, intelligent design). it will be protected so long as they hold that philosophical belief.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • !payingattention

      They already do... have you read any number of blogs or comments on blogs?

      I've never seen a Christian suggest a law against "bullying" of Christians. Tell the "gays" to grow up.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Right on John ... Right on.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. penguin

    The one thing I can't stand and refuse to put up with is intolerance!!

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

      Stop being so intolerant!

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

      ok ...thats funny.

      January 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Where is the darn "Like" button for your post Penguin! Hahahahahaha, right on.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. IndiGirl

    @ Xsyntriq:

    *Applause*

    January 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Herne

    Part of me does believe in segregation.
    If we could put all conservative republicans in one state....like Texas...
    (they'd rename it, Jebusland.. I'm sure.)....
    I think I'd be O.K. with that...
    Rick Santorum, could be their supreme ruler and leader... Sara Palin would run their EPA, Newt would be Treasurer...and Bachman would run education....policing would be run by the Bushes...and Cheney with a shotgun aimed the wrong way, of course.
    ..hmmm.....yeah....I propose conservative republicans.... either ALL move to Texas....its a desert...that should be appropriate....(I'm part American Indian).....or they should be driven back to the sea and to very the depths of Hell from whence they came.)
    .....now don't ya'll start yellin at me.....it's just a thought....
    P.S. I'd recommend a REALLY big fence.... with ego seeking missiles...some holy water...and some voodoo type trinket stuff....maybe a guard moose.
    the munchies are kicking in...must eat.

    January 5, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Herne

      history has taught us how to beat this abysmal economy....just read some non-wasp history please...just learn. the bright ones will figure it out...some are already learning.

      January 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Or u could stay in California....

      January 5, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Capt. Obvious

    If a kid is made fun of because they're fat or skinny that's NOT bullying. If physical violence is used THAT'S bullying. If kids were made fun of like they used to be there wouldn't be 200lb eighth graders wearing shorts at mid-calf. Bullying is physical, ridicule is life.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Says the ignorant redneck that bowes to an imaginary friend in the sky. Ignorance is ignorance. Intolerance is intolerance. And terror is terror. The christians hateful agenda to harrass and harm the gay community is one in the same with radical muslims you want to irraticate jews and western philosophy. its all the same terroristic bullying to achieve their crazy ideology. Christians are just as wrong as every other cult that believes in an imaginary friend. their whole fairy tale and story book is soooooo fwcking silly!

      January 5, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      bullying can be both physical and mental. you tell me a group of kids surrounding a person and yelling at them is not bullying.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      @ Dave ...
      "Intolerance is intolerance."
      I may or may not agree with your belief that Christians are ignorant idiots, but I will defend your right to your belief and right to express your belief with my very life. Is that tolerant enought? Still feeling so intolerant?

      January 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      @ Cedar Rapids
      "bullying can be both physical and mental. you tell me a group of kids surrounding a person and yelling at them is not bullying."
      – I don't know if it is or not Cedar ... you tell us. You're the one in the crowd doing the yelling. By the way, I support your right to have your view and express it; even if I think you are dead wrong.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Herne

    ......i posted under the wrong article....oops....uh...on that note.....
    How can immoral adults expect to teach children morals???...the root of the problem begins at home...one problem should solve another... teach children freedom of expression, fairness, kindness, humility and the basics of human decency....wait...we still go to war over fairy tales stories....we're all screwed...scrap my first idea....teach your kids, basic survival skills....like hunting, fishing, using their worthless degrees and student loans as fuel for heat, as they claim bankruptcy...ok....now im hungry

    January 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy©

    @penguin: lol

    January 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Zen Angel

    This bill would destroy a school's ability to combat bullying...all a parent would have to do is bring in a copy of it & a lawsuit. Much of the attention is going towards gay students, but this would go even farther than that: the Jewish kid being tormented as a "Christ-killer," for example. A Native American student could be taunted as a "spawn of Satan," (there is a religion that states that), and the atheist child could daily be told she deserved to burn in hell. Not to mention how it could affect female students, faced by the myriad of belief systems that would insist she cover her hair, cover her face, dress "modestly" (by their terms), or not sit anywhere near her male counterparts, let alone join a game with them on at recess. No, this bill is far too extreme & the only thing it would accomplish is tying the hands of school administrators who could only look on, helplessly, as students are singled out & tormented by their classmates' "rights to free speech."

    January 5, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Similiar to how blanket zero tolerance policies have penalized kids who have drawn pics of guns or cowboys shooting at each other and have been sent home from school. No common sense included in decision making

      January 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • JohnnyJihad

      Kids are going to be mean. Adults are going to be mean. Maybe we should teach our kids that words are just words. How about teaching kids that killing youreself because some girls at school make fun of you is wrong. Maybe if children were taught to not have their felling hurt so much we wouldnt have aa bunch of fat lazy lawsuit slinging adults running around.

      January 5, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      @ Zen Angel
      I disagree with your slippery slope, hyperbolic response. I think school administrators would have plenty of ability to address threats and harassment. Don't you want political and religious freedom of expression protected? If not, I support your right to believe what you believe, and to express your beliefs – even if you refuse to do the same for me.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. @Herne

    Good suggestions. Or we could smack the old lady around. Send the kids to their room for a few more hours of violent video. Maybe shove some Ritilin down their throats if they start acting like what they have been observing all these years.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Anon

    So glad I'm not there. Sounds like a bunch of idiots running that state.

    "I punched him because of my religious beliefs!" "I broke their leg because they don't believe in God! They DESERVED it!"

    January 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mmmmm

    since when faith is considered bigoted. so a person supposed to be legally harassed for saying h0mosxuality is wrong. IT IS WRONG. morality standards do exist and they don't disappear just because...LGTB decided to have self ingratiating agenda.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      its wrong because your little book tells you it iis but guess, what, i dont agree with you, so suck it.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nancy

      YOU say it's wrong. *I* say you're wrong... se.xual.ity is a matter of GENETICS you poor deluded sod. Wean yourself away from the book that tells you the world is only 6,000 years old and step into the light of day. It's an amazing place once you recognize that science isn't the boogey man the cults make it out to be.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      @ Mmmmm
      The ignorance in your post is breathtaking. I'm gay. I state right now that, like all the other posts here, I support your right to believe what you do and your right to express those beliefs – and I'll defend that right with my life. But now I'm going to express a little of my beliefs on you. Your bible is wrong, your head is backwards, and I think you're a lousy example of a human being. You'd best serve this great country by going to school and learning to read before attempting to write any more of your ignorant, hateful, intolerant tripe.

      January 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. @

    Sure, yeah, okay, blame it all on the mothers...what about dad? You know, the other parent?

    January 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. @

    Says the religious right wing thug mmmmmmmm.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      @@say...oh! look whose playin' the religious card...even an atheist knows murder is wrong...its called natural law. inaddition to religious laws, LGTB also want to rewrite natural laws, too.

      January 5, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. @Mmmmm

    Morality and being gay have nothing to do with each other.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. gahh

    Just when you think the conservatives can't make things any worse. Just ask Rick Perry, he has all the answers, especially when it comes to how all non conservatives should be treated.

    January 5, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
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