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. banasy©

    I don't know any bank robbers, but then I don't see any posting here that is talking about robbing a bank, either.
    I see you posting about beastiality, though...

    January 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bestiality

    He he. Why would *bestiality* even be a word if nobody did it? For poetry? LMAO

    January 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Not to mention bank robbers are not talking about marrying the bank...

    January 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      What do marrying inanimate objects or other things have to do with the new tennessee law???????????????

      January 5, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy©

    Why would one keep bringing it up if they were not interested in it?

    January 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy©

    @M in Oz:
    Thanks for the interpretation.

    I don't think that applies to me at all...all I have are my opinions, which one can either agree or disagree with.
    Apparently, Mmmmm disagrees with my opinions.

    And to think, all I said was that one can have high morals and be gay.

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

    Reggie from LA:

    Well, the gun-control laws didn't help that poor park ranger, did it?

    January 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. VRage13

    There is a big difference betweeen speaking your mind on a subject and harassing someone. Problem is kids and a lot of adults don't know the difference. Quoteing scripture is not harassing, it is freedom of speech and freedom of religion being practiced. Just becuase someone disagrees with you and states it very clearly does not mean they are harassing you.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bestiality

    Well, the US Military Code banning sodomy AND bestiality must help in some way. President Obama, Commander in Chief, insists that these laws remain unchanged. So it looks like President obama sees something you don't.

    January 5, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Boy hump trial

    "It was my genetics that made me hump that boy, your Honor. What? Count 2? Uhhhh. I'll plead the fifth as far as the dog goes."

    January 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy©

    I had no idea that beastiality and sodomy were so rampant in the military, Beastiality. Clearly they are, otherwise why the post?
    Anyone in the military care to shed some light on Beastiality's post?

    Is sodomy and beastiality running amok in our military?

    January 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      Can pigs fly?

      January 5, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. beachrat

    Here is sharia law in reverse. The haters are on the move, fortunately I feel like they are losing traction.

    January 5, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. banasy©

    As I thought,???.
    As I thought.

    January 5, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. csense

    Also, children do not have the same rights as adults. Children do not get the benefit of the 1st amendment in school, that's a fact jack

    January 5, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      Hmm...so then that means students are forbidden from having political debates in the classroom, history class would cease to exist, bullying would not be as rampant, and sixteen year olds would not be tried as adults after they commited a very serious crime...not.

      January 6, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. castyourvote2012

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    January 6, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tully

    CNN, your bias is appalling. So bad, in fact, I'm forced to read three other NEWS channels just to get a whole story. I remember being able to just read CNN. In fairness though, you are not the only offender, just last.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:14 am | Report abuse |
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