Tennessee lawmakers this week passed a bill that they say is designed to protect the religious beliefs of students, but critics argue what it adds up to is a religious license to discriminate.
The legislation, known as Tennessee’s Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, or HB 1547, was introduced in the house by Rep. Courtney Rogers (R) and is supposedly to combat discrimination against students who want to express their religious view points. The bill steamrolled through both the House and Senate, earning a 90-2 vote in the lower chamber and a 32-0 vote in the Senate.
The legislation stipulates that:
This bill prohibits an LEA from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject. This bill requires an LEA to treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the LEA treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject.
This doesn’t sound that disagreeable on face, as we all have an interest in protecting students from discrimination on grounds of their religious beliefs. There are a couple of facts, however, that immediately make this bill suspect.
First of all, and unlike the plethora of cases of anti-LGBT discrimination which is still not guarded against by enumerating under Tennessee law, there is no problem of anti-religious discrimination in Tennessee schools. That may be because such discrimination does not exist on a wide scale (quite probable), but also because Tennessee already demands robust religious protections anyway and in addition to specific federal protections.
The bill, therefore, cannot reasonably be termed one that is truly seeking to fix a problem. So what is it intended for? Looking at the text, it appears it is solely concerned with religious privilege. Here are a few examples.
The legislation massages away establishment of religion concerns by mandating at every forum where a student might be permitted to speak (including graduation) school administrators, in effect, read the text of the bill stating that the student’s speech does not reflect the “endorsement, sponsorship, position, or expression” of the school. This seems to be designed to forestall any kind of legal challenge or objection by schools. This isn’t in fact the first clause in the bill but it sets the stage well for what is to come.
The bill provides that, where schools allow extra-curricula activities, students must be allowed to also create religious clubs, prayer groups and “other religious gatherings” so long as they conform to the rules governing other clubs. They must also be given access to the same school facilities for such purposes. Under the Equal Access Act of 1984, students cannot be prevented from forming particular groups if other student groups are allowed. Therefore, religious groups are already allowed within schools. Gay/Straight Alliances, however, continue to meet rather suspect procedural hurdles in a number of Tennessee schools.
This appears to be necessary groundwork for a clause later in the bill that demands that students be given the chance to engage in special religious speaking engagements, even detailing how students could share their religious faith over the school’s announcement system, and potentially in the classroom. If you cannot mandate prayer in schools, this seems like a nice backdoor way to load up your child with prayers and have them broadcast them for you. If you think that is a tad cynical, other provisions in the bill might convince you otherwise.
The legislation further mandates that a student can express their religious beliefs in homework, artwork and written assignments. The text says this means children must be free “of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” A student cannot therefore be “penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content” of their work.
Obviously, this raises several red flags quite apart from LGBT rights concerns. Even the most deferential reading of the text cannot help but notice this would mean creationism in science classes, the undermining of instruction on the theory of evolution by natural selection, and many other areas where teachers would run up against potential action if they seek to clarify, for instance, the difference between what a child might believe about the origins of life and what the facts actually state.
An overriding concern is also that the bill will allow verbal bullying of perceived or actual LGBT children and that, so long as it is couched in religious overtones, it will mean that schools cannot move to prevent it. The same with outright distortions over topics like same-sex marriage, sexual health, general scientific understanding, expressions of other faiths, expressions of no faith and more.
Governor Bill Haslam must first sign the bill before it can become law. In the past he has prevented legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill from passing, but his exact position on this latest and admittedly more subtle bill is unknown.
The ACLU is encouraging Haslam to reject the bill, saying that ”This bill encourages religious coercion. Should this pass, students with a range of religious beliefs, as well as non-believers, would likely routinely be required to listen to religious messages or participate in religious exercises that conflict with their own beliefs.”
Sadly, Tennessee isn’t alone in attempting this kind of legislation. The infamous Oklahoma Republican Sally Kern, among others, have filed a near identical bill which is currently making its way through the legislature as an “emergency” bill. Clearly, this is part of the wider religious privilege agenda and, because it is so antagonistic to a broad spectrum of other civil rights, it deserves the same amount of protestation and objection as Arizona’s infamous “Turn Away the Gays” bill because to allow this bill to become law would be a massive blow to education in the state and potentially to the wellbeing of students.
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