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. Klaas Jan

    America is too worried about not hurting kids' feelings in school instead of actually educating their youngsters. And that is why you are falling behind, moreso every day.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • niz

      Where are you from Klaas?

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

      Netherlands.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • niz

      I agree that part of our current problem is blaming everybody BUT the kids. IF they do poorly on tests it is the teachers fault, the archaic curriculum, etc. We tie our administrators hands by punishing them if they suspend disruptive kids, then blame them for not doing well on tests. This is a different issue. Giving someone a pass to harass should be international. I am sure that the Netherlands has civil rights protection in its schools, also.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank!

      I didn't think the Netherlands were allied with the Nazis in WW2.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. niz

    Expression of religious beliefs as long as they don't physically harm them? This was obviously written by an idiot. Open this door and you will have gangs of the self-righteous pelting kids with derogatory verbal abuse under the guise of free speech. I am straight, and a teacher in a high school for 29 years. I have seen the vitriolic that people clothed in misguided piety can heap upon those that they deem "sinners". Show me the verse in the bible where someone has that right. I believe Jesus was all about the love they neighbor, not condemn him. C'mon Tennessee Christians, you are coming off a little Talibanistic.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Priya86

    The fact that there need to be laws to deal with bullying is ridiculous. It is a parents job to teach their child to be kind to others.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • csam18

      That apparently doesn't happen because bullying still exist. And it's not so much about knowing right from wrong as it is children with confidence. More likely than not, kids and people in general who bully are people with insecurity issues.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reggie from LA

      Disagree. That follows an assumption that children will behave as taught by their parents? Ideologically that may be so, but ONLY ideologically. That being the case it is not a fact that children will behave as taught. Conversely, suppose the children DO follow the teachings of their parents who in some cases, ARE IDIOTS. Being a parent does not make one a wise mentor. So if the parents object to certain "moral" or cultural differences, will they teach their kids to be judgmental and antagonistic? YEP. And will it be disruptive, hurtful and counterproductive? YEP!

      January 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tired

    I am very tired of the blaming teachers and anti-gay people for bulling. As a former teacher I saw and had to deal with my share of bulling. Most of the bulling was not connected to gays or their life style. It was toward any one (student, teacher, principal, coach, policeman) that certain "I'm better than you" students had toward others. Where did they learn it? Watching TV, their parents or an older sibling. Kids will imatate actions and repeat words – even HATEFUL ONES.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank!

      Tird, were you a bully as a child? Are you still one? I'm guessing yes.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jpip

    So conservative christian kids in Tennessee will get a pass to pick on gay kids since the bible says it's a sin?

    January 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank!

      Apparently so. And, it should come as no surprise that Tennessee is as messed up as the other Southern states.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  6. countrans

    Does this mean muslim students will be able to bully all american christian students for not wearing the veil and eating pork? what the F?

    January 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank!

      Yes.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      So what if it does? We can teach our kids to be sensitive or we can teach them not to give a F what the other kid says. I vote option two. Problem: instantly solved.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jazzy

    Living thru the teenage years is very complex and does take a whole lotta energy out of one person. Our world is not run by God's laws or way of living as Jesus' example to us is stated clearly in the Bible.
    If Families made Gods' inspired word (the Bible) the corner stone of their life, our world would be alot better; the school experience wouldn't be as hard on our society.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  8. fearlessdude

    Harassment is harassment, religious or otherwise. Your right to harass me ends were my fist begins. Unfortunately little boys and girls can't say and do the same thing, adults must protect them.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Daryl

    The way that Mmmm writes he was bully and harrased people he felt were too different from himself. Everyone has the right to believe what they want and voice their opinons but when that turns to harrassment it should me criminal. Nobody should be harrassed just for being themselves just as gay people should not harrass people not like them. I have always believed live and let live.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mmmmm

    ....h0mosxuality kills...it is lyf-style of high morbidity and mortality...

    January 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank!

      I'll bet stupidity kills more people.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rye

      What else do you know nothing about?

      January 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jennifer

    It's astounding so many of you think a person doesn't have the right to free speech unless they conform to current politically correct views.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rye

      Everyone has the right to say whatever they like, and everyone else has the right to challenge them.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • cls2641

      Rye-
      Yes, yes, yes! You are correct. You get it! Everyone has the right to their views and everyone has the right to challenge them! I'm glad you understand that this LAW from the radical left trying to force opposing views out of the discussion is incorrect! Disagree with whatever (Christian) views you want...but don't create first amendment violating laws to accomplish it.

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

      Let's remember: That applies to everyone.

      January 5, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. banasy©

    Mmmmm:
    Name one instance where I have been a hypocrite. One.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • 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.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. niz

    Kind of curious Mmm. Do you support he Kansas church that protests at soldiers funerals because America allows gays to exist? Free speech, religious, and all that.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      As a former soldier that saw Westboro clowns protesting my good friend and team leader's funeral, I can tell you this: I was offended. I reserve the right to be offended. But my friend was killed in a country by a terrorist organization that is hell bent on restricting peoples' freedoms, PARTICULARLY freedom of speech and religion. So, whereas I think they're a bunch of morons, I support their rights to say what they want.

      Oh yeah – I was offended. But I got over it.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. tonya

    Did that go?

    January 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tonya

    Ok, CNN, before I let other news networks know you are censoring me, please explain what that was an offensive comment?

    January 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
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