Tennessee: Where Soon You Could Bully Gay Kids in the Name of Religion

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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Religion isn't supposed to punish. It's suppose to forgive.

Michael T.
Michael T3 years ago


Excellent point!

I could just imagine the outrage. If the child used a tree branch to do so he would probably be arrested for bringing a weapon to school or something. They meaning the christians, would go nuts claiming satan and lucifer and all of those phony gods and opponents to their god, you know the only one true one, like Osiris was claimed and Zeus, etc., and et al.

Echo M.
Echo M.3 years ago

LOL would soooooo love to see the reaction the first time a student wants to hold a meeting for a wiccan ceremony and cast a circle.......

Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long & prosper!

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle3 years ago

This is just evil. How can a religion that is supposed to be based on love be so hateful?

Tim W.
Timothy W3 years ago

What the law will open the door for, is a lot of fighting in school with no recourse to address.

I Christian kid will go up to a gay kid and begin to tell him how they are praying for their poor sinful soul and how they are going to hell. Then the gay kid says, I am christian too, but my church teaches me that you are going to hell because you are full of hate and don't treat your brother as you would be treated. Next thing you know fists are flying but it is alright because they are both simply exorcising their rights. Meanwhile some other kid of some other religion is watching with a smile knowing that eventually the silly christians will take each other out and there will be room for a new faith to take their place.

Rainbow W.
.3 years ago

The constitution allows for freedom of religion but also freedom FROM religion. This is not surprising from a state I just learned allows Christian Scientists to issue disability placards. They are still in the dark ages.

Debora Jarrell
Debora Jarrell3 years ago

Lawrence T: I think you'll find that this President is more in tuned with a fairness for all than the one just past. Obama is a Christian, but he also believes that everyone has the same protections under the Constitution. To tell you the truth, he has more of a moral fiber in his little finger than 90% of the GOP in Congress combined. (He's not LGBT but he believes that they have the same rights as straights. He's not Muslim but he believes that they have the same rights as Christians. He's not a woman but he believes that they should have the same pay for the same job as men. He's not a woman, and if he was, he probably would not consider an abortion, but he believes that women should have the right to choose for themselves whether they should or not. He also believes that if we increase education and access to birth control that it will reduce the need to abortions much more reliable and quickly than legislating against it.)

Debora Jarrell
Debora Jarrell3 years ago

It will backfire on Tennessee. Because if they allow one religion, they have to allow them all, or it's discrimination. So theoretically, those Christians will have to sit through Muslim and Atheist things too. Bet when that happens, they will regret their push for this.

Debora Jarrell
Debora Jarrell3 years ago

It will backfire on Tennessee. Because if they allow one religion, they have to allow them all, or it's discrimination. So theoretically, those Christians will have to sit through Muslim and Atheist things too. Bet when that happens, they will regret their push for this.