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. Donkey Party

    Just more of the right-wing's push toward a Theocracy. The similarities between Sharia law and radical Christian fundamentalism are getting closer each passing day. It is these same right-wing profiteering "prophets" that will lead us into the next civil war, or world war, or both. The saddest part, is what does it say about us as a nation, when we have a feeble-minded populace that buys wholeheartedly into the ignorance, intolerance, racism, fear and hate-mongering that the right-wing perpetuates? This once great nation of ours is being dragged into the sewer, thanks to the right-wing agenda to foment their radicalism, and prey upon the most weak-minded in society.

    January 6, 2012 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Punkass

      Wow you are completely biased and have no clue what you are talking about. Sharia law??? Really??? Going a little overboard arent you? it is wrong to bully but it is also wrong to deny ppl their first amendment rights. You talk about intolerance but it seems YOU are intolerant of other people's beliefs. Get off your pathetic liberal dogma.

      January 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yea...

      This is not replying to you, but the person who replied to you (if that makes sense). The first amendment does not give the right to harass people or cause harm to others. You can openly speak that you hate gay people or black people, but you cannot direct that towards them in hopes to cause harm.

      I do not find much difference between any fundamentalists. What I could see happening is that only Christian children will be able to bully other children. The Jewish kid won't be allowed to, the Muslim kid won't be allowed to, and we know that the atheist kid won't be allowed to.

      Tennessee is a beautiful place, but I would not live there even if I was paid millions. It was not too long ago that Muslims were targeted for wanting to build a mosque. What I couldn't get my brain to understand was the logic of a lot of people in that town. I'm glad there were many who stood up for the Muslim population, but it was sickening to watch. If you have ever seen The Crucible, it was similar to that. It also is pathetic because the Muslim community has been there for at least 2 decades. The town made it sound like the Muslims were invading.

      January 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Why so hyperbolic, Donkey?

      January 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      @ Yea...
      You say, "The first amendment does not give the right to harass people or cause harm to others. You can openly speak that you hate gay people or black people, but you cannot direct that towards them in hopes to cause harm."

      Political freedom of speech is central to our liberty and freedom. A credible threat is completely different than an ignorant, backwards political/religious belief.

      Careful trying to legislate your opponents into silence. It is REPUGNANT to the 1st amendment to do so.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Durundal

      There is a difference between squelching freedom of speech, and stopping people from infringing on other people's rights. I am sick and tired of every m o r o n misquoting their rights to justify their own petty beliefs, and for that, religion and intolerance seem to go hand in hand. As far as persecuting minorities go: remember that before the muslims it was all about the blacks,gays,irish, and chinese. Way to go inbred nativism! you people make me sick

      January 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. indyreader

    Wasn't a very similarly worded proposed law just scrapped in Michigan?

    January 6, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  3. Annie

    So sad laws are needed for folks that choose to live their life without integrity and empathy toward others. Even sadder is the poor example set for our children. Those that ridiculed this precious daughter, sister, and friend; imagine, if you can, what the world would be like if everyone was like you. Frightening!

    January 6, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jasmyn

    The bible has plenty of misogynistic passages. Does the state of Tennessee think it would be okay for a young man to remind of young woman of her "inferior place?" Someone who avidly believed the bible could use it as justification.

    January 6, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. Donkey Party

    Oh, the irony of your name, Punkass. Just keep donating your pocket change to the Westboro Baptist Church. They depend on mental midgets like you to further their hate-mongering agenda.

    January 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. conradshull

    What about students' expressions of "irrational biases behind" their unexamined liberal beliefs? Will this stop?

    January 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Primewonk

      This post makes no sensse. What is it you are trying to say?

      January 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hippediva

    Another attempt to justify hate and bullying from so-called adults.

    January 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Papa Lazarou

    Who cares only the poor and losers send their kids to public schools in Tennessee. You do not want to face it but Fact!

    January 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. pinkiepi

    This is very worrying. Social conservative policies like these do nothing but encourage hatred and bigotry.

    January 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      And freedom of political and religious expression (except for threats to a person and/or their property). Yes, I can see how you'd be so against that. Please stop trying to silence your political opponents through legislation. I thought that was a crime you'd accuse conservatives of, right?

      January 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Primewonk

    Bigotry was wrong when religious folks said that blacks were not quite human. Bigotry was wrong when religious folks said women were second class people, owned by their fathers then husbands. Bigotry is wrong when religious folks claims gays are sick, twisted, etc.

    January 6, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BBoy

    I have to tell you that as a U.S. citizen, who's lived outside the U.S. for almost 4-decades, every day the country of my birth seems to growing stranger and stranger!

    January 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Could that be because you've been abroad for 40 years?

      January 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Patriarchae

    Religion needs to be kept OUT of schools. Simple as that. I've even talked to many of my Christian friends (I'm an atheist) and they agree that the level of Christian fundamentalism in this country is getting out of control. I wouldn't put it on the level of Middle East Islamic fundamentalism, but pretty soon if we continue down the road we're going, the U.S. will be just as bad as any Islamist theocracy. This is NOT a Christian nation, it has never been (most of the founding fathers were simply deists and were vehemently opposed to mixing religion and governance), and it will be very sad if it ever becomes one. But the way I see it, this is just a way for radical Christians to gain the power of intimidation over their peers by being able to harass them. True terrorists.

    January 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Black Jimmy Carter SUCKS

      is that why In God We Trust was on everything, one nation under God WOW you are right not a christian nation go on tell a nother 1 !!!!!!!

      January 6, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patriarchae

      Hey genius. "In God We Trust" was added as the motto in the 1950's. THE 1950'S. There was NO mention of god anywhere in the founding of the nation. And if you like, go read the Treaty of Tripoli (if you can read that is), Article 11, to see the U.S. government bluntly declare that this is not a Christian nation. People like you are why America is falling behind the world. Complete idiocy.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      I agree with the "In God We Trust" facts you mention Patriarchae, but I think you comparing those with differing political views than you (and kids who mock/ridicule other kids on the playground) to terrorists is pure hyperbole.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patriarchae

      Yeah, I was angry. It was hyperbole. Sorry.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yea...

      In God We Trust does not suggest a Christian nation...Now if "In Christ We Trust" was said, then we can assume we are a Christian nation.

      January 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Black Jimmy Carter SUCKS

    Freedom of speech is not free you have a right to scream FIRE but go to a kids daycare or theatre and Scream fire and see what happens, you have Freedom of speech but insight a riot and see where that gets you also..... when a kid is being verbally bullied which is a speech right to call some one names that some one can shout back and say whatever, as long as those hands arent laid upon one another then its O.K. and of course here is a liberal concept just WALK AWAY, hate to say it but no one thats right no one is free from ridicule, Gay-Straight-Retarded-this race- that race no one is free from it and yes people in wheel chairs can be P.O.S. toofreedom come with a big price even speech !!!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      I don't like your "handle" ... but I agree with what you say.

      January 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Santa Claus + Thomas Paine

    Bullying in any and all forms in American schools should be prohibited. There is a disgusting culture of bullying in many schools, especially public ones, that needs to be addressed with appropriate legislation, not proposed laws like this one that would allow more of it.

    January 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      If you're going to prohibit "bullying" in any and all forms with appropriate legislation you'll need to define bullying clearly and unambiguously so the law can be applied fairly. Please, tell us what "any and all forms of bullying" is exactly?

      January 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. gtsmoker

    For the last 40 years or longer harassment has been pervasive and encouraged in public schools by the faculty and administration against conservatives.
    I never would have graduated grade school, HS or college without telling the "professors" what they wanted to hear.

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

      It's true GTSMOKER. I'm a gay man and found it shocking just how intolerant my college professors were to conservative views. I'm not liberal, and I found that shocked them just as much as I was shocked by their intolerance. Simply Shocking!

      January 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
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