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. David

    When I was in school we were told as students and children, we weren't afforded full civil rights. It was actually a good policy. Learn the world before you speak it. Learn your rights before you exercise them. How can a 16 year old know law, when she has never taken a philosophy class. How can she know science when she has never taken chemistry or calculus, how can she know religion if she has never taken anthropology?

    I do not condone bullying of any form. And as a Christian, I am especially appalled by Christians who bully GLBs. We are taught that every soul is judged at its death and only God can judge a soul worthy of heaven or hell. So what gives these "Christians" the right to judge anyone.

    The world could use a little more tolerance. From religious types and non religious types alike. What happened to the civility of gentlemen and gentle ladies who would say "gee friend, your view is interesting to me. Can you explain it? I would like to learn." Instead we blather a person is wrong. We cite XYZ and duress a persons ability to rebuttal. We think we are right because we know we are right.

    In today's age we want to do 80 percent talk and 20 percent listen instead of the other way around. I blame this partially on our first amendment. As wonderful as I love it and believe it is empowering; it also empowers many to think that it is our duty to talk and talk and talk. Perhaps this is within reason to assume but is it within wisdom?

    Even now, I share my opinions but with what agenda? Simply and old man trying to criticize the world I helped to create. And here I am guilty of the crime I illustrate above. But maybe someone out there will prove themselves a better person than me and my aged peers who created this damned world and they will listen. They may break a cycle and at least lead our youth one step in the right direction.

    January 6, 2012 at 5:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Sadie Boyd


      January 6, 2012 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Inrealityhere

      Yes, we should leave the judging to God and just speak the truth in love:
      John 3:17-19
      New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
      17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.[a] 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

      January 6, 2012 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Well said David. Very well said indeed.

      January 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    Using a computer's spelling program will not teach an uneducated person the difference between "conscience" and "conscious."

    January 6, 2012 at 6:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. curtis harmon

    When we loosen the grip on the first amendment, to allow children in school to openly proclaim their religion in a free environment, the problem isn't with the children, it is with the parents and the media. All the ideas about harassment come only from the media and parents trying to think ahead, not the students. Because of things like this article, the students, faculty and parents now have one thought about this bill and that's that it allows students to harass gays. Students wouldn't harass if you didn't tell them they could!! Start raising your kids to believe that everyone is free to express their beliefs in a kind manner. So what if you can quote the bible. Harassment starts when one is offended. If that be the case then the current harassment rules should take precedence over free speech just like swearing. I would also point out that the word "the" is an acceptable word, yet if used repeatedly in a harassing manner it is still harassment. Everyone should know that if joe the plumber can express his religion, then so can I.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Problem is that these legislators want to protect the harassment by restricting protection only to outright threats and physical attack. Problem is that harassment usually does not come in that form. They are trying to gut anti-harassment rules. Plain and simple.

      January 6, 2012 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
  4. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    Young gay people living in Tennessee can remember that they do not have to live there throughout their entire lives.
    If a young Tennessee resident has inherited a mansion and fortune there and wants to stay, he doesn't have to care what the locals think about him unless the Christians burn his big house down.
    The influence of Christianity in this country is changing.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      Good reminder for all that young people may have it rough (and that's not good) but it's not permanent. There are plenty of welcoming places & people to be found and enjoyed for years to come.

      Coming from someone who grew up in Tennessee but moved away and never went back.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Problem is that school is a major part of their world and source of self-esteem. When that becomes he.ll then it is hard to see a better future.

      January 6, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    @ Lisa:
    I'm from Mississippi. I left at eighteen.
    Some of the most successful and famous people I have known in New York City came from Tennessee.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
  6. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    By the way, most of those successful persons to whom I referred just above were not gay. In fact, as I think about it, none of them was.
    They left Tennessee because they were very smart and wanted a better life.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
  7. Richard

    Tennessee – just another part of the trash can that is the south.

    Winter – because it is better than living with redneck southerners.

    January 6, 2012 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
  8. banasy©

    @JIF©, re: 6:19 post:

    I wasn't going to point that out, since I didn't want to be responsible for a brain explosion.

    January 6, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©

    @MarkinFl, @ 9:07: Exactly.

    January 6, 2012 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
  10. KatyaKatya

    And that is part of the reason why my children go to a private school. I don't buy new clothes, I never eat out, but my children are not going to a TN public school.

    January 6, 2012 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  11. MarkinFL

    "protect the student from being punished merely for expressing their views so long as they aren’t threatening harm or damaging property."

    This is simply a Christian bully protection bill. Most bullying does not involve actual threats of harm. And the only religious view that is prevalent among the bullies in Christianity.
    If this bill passes I just hope a few liberal and or gay students have the guts to harass some Christians and demand protection. (I only support harassing the other bullies)

    January 6, 2012 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
  12. wussy nation

    Wow! Just read over these primarily uber lib comments: nasty, mean, hateful, anti-christian, anti-south. But, hey, that's okay - you keep "bullying" people and things YOU don't like in support of legislating the exact same thing! Hiariously blinded in your own fog! Bring back "stinks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me" (...unless I'm a whiney pansey lib)

    January 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  13. Primewonk

    So, when some racist ldiot starts calling black kids the "N word" and claims that his religion teaches that blacks are sub-human, that will be OK?

    How about when the fundiot (fundamentalist ldiot) kids start tormenting the catholic kids – telling them they are all going to be tortured in hell?

    What about when some ignorant fundy jock starts telling his female math teacher to sit down and shut up, since his church teaches that women must be subsevieant to men?

    January 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      "So, when some racist ldiot starts calling black kids the "N word" and claims that his religion teaches that blacks are sub-human, that will be OK?"
      – Yes, it would be permissible, but not OK. Know the difference? Did Dog The Bounty Hunter go to jail for calling someone the N word? No, I don't think so – and I'm shocked you think people should.

      "How about when the fundiot (fundamentalist ldiot) kids start tormenting the catholic kids – telling them they are all going to be tortured in hell?"
      – Same answer as above. I'd agree they are idiots, but not criminals.

      "What about when some ignorant fundy jock starts telling his female math teacher to sit down and shut up, since his church teaches that women must be subsevieant to men?"
      – He needs to get sent to the principal’s office, not jail. Continued disruptive behavior in any classroom has been, and should always be, something corrective action can be taken for. What more do you want to do to him?

      January 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ¤.¤

    Wow! Just read over these primarily uber con comments: nasty, mean, hateful, christian, southern redneck hicks. But, hey, that’s okay — you keep “bullying” people and things YOU don’t like in support of legislating the exact same thing! Hiariously blinded in your own fog! Bring back “stinks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me” (…unless I’m a redneck christian moron)

    January 6, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      So, you support using the law to silence expression you disagree with under the name of protecting the children from harm?

      January 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Unreality

    Yet another version of the "book"...LMAO!

    January 6, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
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