Will Tennessee's New Religious Viewpoints Legislation Protect Bullying in School?

The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act is a controversial mix of church and state, and it's about to be signed into law.

Tennessee Laws
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Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

In Tennessee last October a teacher assigned a 10-year-old student to write about the person she admired most. She chose God. The teacher asked her to choose another subject. From there state legislators got involved to pass legislation to protect her right to write on a religious topic.

Previous federal court rulings and existing state laws already allow students to exercise their religious beliefs while at school, but two lawmakers in Tennessee were compelled to make religious liberty protections more explicit. Republican state Sens. Ferrell Haile and Courtney Rogers sponsored the bill that would allow students to express their religious beliefs in their homework, artwork, and written and oral assignments without punishment or discrimination.

The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act passed the state House of Representatives 90–2; on Monday it passed the state Senate 32–0. It now sits on the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who will likely sign it. 

The bill also specifies that students can organize student prayer groups and other religious gatherings just as they would be permitted to organize non-curricular activities and groups, which is also already protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated the bill “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.” It also adds that the bill “encourages religious coercion, requiring local school boards to establish a system for selecting student speakers and allow those students to express their beliefs about religion in a variety of inappropriate settings, from the classroom to school-day assemblies and school events.”

The ACLU recognizes that Wiccans or Satanists, for example, would have the same rights to speak as Christians, and all students would be subjected to their viewpoints. Still, the ALCU wrote “that public schools are not Sunday schools.”

The bill is vague on requiring schools to choose student speakers. It states that school boards should create “the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at school events at which a student is to publicly speak.” Students are selected “based on neutral criteria, for the selection of student speakers at school events and graduation ceremonies.” It adds, “Student expression on an otherwise permissible subject may not be excluded from the limited public forum because the subject is expressed from a religious viewpoint.”

Similar measures have passed in recent years in Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina.

On Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s website, it is noted that Perry signed the bill after “isolated instances in Texas public schools highlighted the confusion and misapplication of law regarding forms of religious expression allowed in our schools. For example, a school prohibited students from wishing troops serving overseas a 'Merry Christmas.' Another school reprimanded a first grader for invoking the name and image of Jesus when she was asked what she thinks of when she thinks of Easter.”

What concerns some critics is that the act opens the door for students to stand up in class and bully gay students by calling them sinners and that this would be protected under law. David Badesh wrote in The New Civil Rights Movement, “Attacks on LGBT people and same-sex marriage are automatically protected under this bill, offering anti-gay students a state-sponsored license to bully.”

Some LGBT activists disagree with this statement. The Tennessee Equality Project Facebook page posted this statement about the bill:

National blogs and news outlets focused on our community are reporting that a bill that encourages bullying of LGBT students has passed the Legislature and is heading to the Governor. The bill is a bad bill, but it is not about LGBT bullying. It is an effort to inject religion into homework assignments and school events in which students are speakers. It is likely unconstitutional and we hope it will be challenged. But, again, based on the text, intent, and the testimony, the bill is NOT aimed at bullying LGBT students in schools.

Former Republican presidential candidate and talk-show host Mike Huckabee gave kudos to Tennessee leaders for passing the bill. He said, "It's a great bill as evidenced by almost unanimous support, but quite sad that the anti-religious forces have become so obnoxious that it's even necessary to have such legislation."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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