Tennessee General Assembly passes “religious freedom” measure that could sanction bullying against LGBTQ kids

The measure passed with overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate

Topics: Gay Rights, lgbtq rights, religious liberty, anti-lgbtq discrimination, student's rights, Education, , ,

Tennessee General Assembly passes "religious freedom" measure that could sanction bullying against LGBTQ kids (Credit: plherrera via iStock)

Tennessee lawmakers this week passed a measure to expand “religious liberty” for students in public schools, which means that bullying LGBTQ kids is about to become legal in the state.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which passed the state Senate and House with overwhelming majorities.

From the measure:

Under this bill, a student may organize student prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities and groups. Religious student groups would be given the same access to school facilities for assembling, as well as the same opportunity to advertise or announce meetings of the groups, as is given to other non-curricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students’ expression. [...]

This bill specifies that a student may express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. A student would not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of the student’s work.

Opponents of the measure argue that students’ right to religious expression is already protected, and that this measure will encourage proselytizing in the classroom and open the door to rampant anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The measure “encourages religious coercion,” notes the American Civil Liberties Union. If passed into law, it would “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. 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.”

As Salon has previously reported, this isn’t the first time Tennessee lawmakers have tried to enshrine anti-LGBTQ discrimination into state law.

Last year, Republican Rep. John Ragan introduced a measure banning elementary and middle-school teachers from discussing sexual activity that is not “related to natural human reproduction.”

The bill died in committee, but included new language requiring school officials to alert parents if they suspected one of their students is LGBTQ. The measure also mandated schools to provide counseling to such students, to prevent “behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and well-being of the student or another person.”

Interestingly, the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act is framed as a measure to protect the speech and expression of students, a basic right that state Republicans do not seem interested in extending to LGBTQ students.

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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