A bill passed Friday by the Tennessee Senate would forbid public school teachers and students in grades kindergarten through eight from discussing the fact that some people are gay.
Opponents deride the measure as the "don't say gay bill." They say it's unfair to the children of gay parents and could lead to more bullying. Supporters say it is intended to give teachers clear guidance for dealing with younger children on a potentially explosive topic.
The bill isn't likely to be taken up by the House before lawmakers adjourn this spring, but the sponsor there has said he would push it forward in 2012 when the General Assembly comes back for the second year of the session.
Passage would make Tennessee the first state to enact such legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2003, Washington defeated a proposal similar to Tennessee's, as did California in 2005 and 2006. A Louisiana law forbids the use of sexually explicit materials depicting homosexuality in sex education classes.
Under the proposal, any instruction or materials at a public elementary or middle school would be limited to age-appropriate lessons about the science of human reproduction.
The legislation was amended from the original version, which said no elementary or middle schools will "provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality." Republican Senate sponsor Stacey Campfield of Knoxville said some of his colleagues were uncomfortable with that language.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," Campfield said after the vote. "I got what I wanted."
He said the language is appropriate because "homosexuals don't naturally reproduce," and he said it's necessary because the state's curriculum is unclear on what can be taught.
However, a critic said the new wording could create other problems.
Sen. Roy Herron, D- Dresden, said it "may inadvertently prevent the teaching of ethics, morality and abstinence."
Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, also said he's unaware of homosexuality being taught anywhere in the state. He said there is nothing in the state's curriculum standards that allows students to be taught about homosexuality.