Tennessee Senate Passes Bill That’ll Let Gay Kids Get Bullied Because “Religious Freedom”

Mayor Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam

Yesterday the Tennessee State Senate passed SB 1793/HB 1547 on a 32-0 vote, and it is expected that Republican governor Bill Haslam will sign the bill, which was initially approved 90-2 by the house, into law. According to the ACLU, this bill — which claims to be an effort to “protect religious freedom” in public schools, despite the fact that religious freedom was enshrined in our Bill of Rights 223 years ago —  “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.”

The bill mandates that Local Educational Agencies “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.” As The New Civil Rights Movement put it, this would give students a free pass to “preach the gospel during science class” and give anti-gay students a “state-sponsored license to bully.”

It gets worse, though: The LEA would also be mandated to establish “a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event at which a student is to publicly speak” and, within that forum, allow students selected by the school board to speak in a manner “that does not discriminate against any student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint.” In other words, students picked by the school will be given a designated forum to publicly espouse their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs involve condemning their classmate’s innate qualities or otherwise legal behavior.

The best part of this particular clause is how the speakers are selected for these “limited public forums” and graduation ceremonies. The selected students must be in the highest two grade levels of the school and would need to hold a “position of honor based on neutral criteria.” Honor positions can be designated by the LEA, but three honor positions are automatically approved by this bill:

  1. Student council officers
  2. Class Officers of the highest grade level in the school


There are so many places to begin with that last one, including the fact that football team captains are always men and it’s unclear why any sport at all, let alone this specific sport, is automatically established as producing worthy public speakers.

But, moving on — this bill would also allow any student to organize “student prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular (sic) student activities and groups” and that these groups should all be given the same access to school facilities and permission to advertise and announce meetings. This is already standard practice in most public schools, although LGBT groups specifically have a tough time getting access to funding and resources. If only being gay was a religion, you guys, we’d be totally set for life. But under this law, any student could form a group aimed specifically at condemning LGBT students or unmarried pregnant students and get away with it because the group reflected their religious beliefs.

Furthermore, this bill creates a great shortcut for conservative religious students who’d rather read the Bible than their biology textbook — students will not be penalized or rewarded due to any religious content they include in their “homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.” As The New Civil Rights movement writes, “At a basic level, a student could merely write “God” on a chemistry test as the answer to a question asking to where water comes from.”

The ACLU notes:

.”..this bill also 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. 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. “

Alarmingly, this bill serves to alienate and marginalize students who are already significantly alienated and marginalized. 84% of Tennessee residents are Christian — mostly Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants and Baptists. Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and non-religious students, as well as any student practicing a less well-known religious tradition, likely already feel plenty disconnected from their community without the football captain requiring them to proclaim Jesus as their lord and savior at a pep rally. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Christian students who could witness their religion being misrepresented as intolerant by students who ascribe to different interpretations of the bible.

Mandating discrimination in public schools is especially problematic on a financial level. Students with adequate financial resources will have the option to opt out of an oppressive educational environment by enrolling in private schools, and poor students will not. Private schools and homeschooling have often been popular options amongst families who don’t want their kids to know about condoms or that humans evolved from apes — and justly so, as it’s ridiculous to prioritize religious beliefs over science in public educational institutions but still entirely legal for a religiously oriented education to enable a kid to earn an educational degree. This law makes it so that the onus will be on families who prefer a fact-based education free of students’ religious proselytizing  to seek out expensive alternatives. The same goes for parents of kids who are often targets of bullying in the name of religious freedom, such as Muslim and LGBT students.

Even without this bill, Tennessee already fails on several fronts when it comes to accurately educating its kids — Tennessee provides abstinence-only education that “exclusively and emphatically  promote[s] sexual risk  avoidance through  abstinence,” and as of 2012, teachers are “forbidden from discussing non-coital sexual activity such as genital touching as an alternative to sex, which legislators have designated as the offending ‘gateway’ sexual behavior.”

And even without this bill, Tennessee already fails to protect its LGBT students. LGBT students and teachers already have no protection under discrimination laws in the state (although Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and Davidson County do have local city ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation). Anti-bullying laws for Tennessee public schools already don’t include specific protections for LGBT students. Last fall, the Tennessee Department of Education confirmed in a report that 5,478 reported acts of bullying happened during the 2012-2013 school year. That’s why the ACLU and local LGBT activist groups are hoping to pass HB 927/SB 1124, which would strengthen TN’s existing anti-bullying law “by clearly identifying common characteristics that all-too-often become the target of bullying in schools, including disability, appearance, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.” That bill is being considered in the House today. Plus, Tennessee is already legendary for its attempts to pass a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would’ve prohibited mentioning gay people at all in public schools, but luckily it eventually died. In August, the Rutherford County, Tennessee school board removed posters deeming Tennessee classrooms LGBT safe spaces, saying the posters were of an “inappropriate sexual nature.” 

Clearly, SB 1793/HB 1547 will contribute to a climate of intolerance that is already killing young people in Tennessee. Jacob Rogers of Cheatham County Central High School killed himself in 2011 after years of anti-gay bullying that school officials did nothing to stop, even though Rogers eventually dropped out of school his senior year because he couldn’t handle the bullying. 14-year-old Phillip Parker, an eighth grader from Gordonsville, Tennessee, killed himself in January of 2012 after enduring anti-gay bullying. State Representative Jeremy Fasion, who voted in favor of SB 1793/HB 1547, said in 2012 that the suicides of these teenage boys were not caused by bullying but because “they were not instilled the proper principles of where their self-esteem came from at home.”

There are potentially subversive results of this law as well, of course. Wiccans, for example, would be free to paint all the pentagrams they want in art class, and if a Buddhist student is captain of the football team, they’d be welcome to lead the stadium in a pre-game meditation. But when you look at the numbers of religions represented in the Tennessee population, those scenarios seem pretty unlikely.

This is especially unfortunate because the tide is turning in Tennessee, just like it is in so many other places, when it comes to public opinion about gay people. A May 2013 poll of registered voters found that 49 percent supported the legal recognition of same-sex couples, and that 69% of Tennessee voters under the age of 30 supported legally recognizing same-sex couples. 2013 was in many ways a promising year in Tennessee for LGBT people, when a great deal of progress was made.

photo of Memphis Pride by Kevin Reed

photo of Memphis Pride by Kevin Reed

We can only hope that for all the citizens of Tennessee, including its strong and passionate LGBT community, that this bill isn’t signed into law.  To that end, the ACLU in Tennessee is collecting signatures on a petition coming out against the bill. It seems likely that the governor will sign it, if he’s not too busy appealing the recent ruling by Federal Judge Aleta Trauger that three Tennessee same-sex couples who were legally married in other states should have their marriages recognized as legal by their home state.

I think we can also all agree that Dolly Parton, patron saint of Dollywood, Tennessee, one of the most magical places on earth, would definitely not approve of any of this nonsense, for real.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. That’s scary. Why is America going this way? Are we taking retro so seriously we’re going back to things like this…

  2. How can you agree with shit like this and still think of yourself as a decent person? How does that even work?

  3. This is severely fucked up.

    “State Representative Jeremy Fasion, who voted in favor of SB 1793/HB 1547, said in 2012 that the suicides of these teenage boys were not caused by bullying but because “they were not instilled the proper principles of where their self-esteem came from at home.””

    Like seriously. How do you call yourself a Christian and espouse this kind of disgusting behaviour?

    • “Its not because of the actual torture they faced, its because they weren’t properly taught how to handle being treated worse than garbage on a mass and constant scale. Lol what is evolution?”

    • I may have actually yelled “FUCK YOU” out loud at my computer when I read that quote. I just do not understand how some people’s brains work.

  4. I despise bibles like i despise kanye west and chris brown. Living in a religious country with a religious family, I’ve heard each Verse from that cunning book. My Grandmother’s brother almost slapped me for not listening while he was preaching that crap. I was FORCED TO BELIEVE onto hating myself for liking another girl. I was FORCED TO SAY things i don’t want to say for kissing another girl. I was FORCED TO BASH queer people for falling in love with another girl. Bibles are not holy. It contains an ammunition of bigotry against a lot of innocent souls.

    Be stronger than the bullies Queer kids from tennessee! It’s not like there’s a safer choice but to hide in the closet for the meantime.

    • I hear ya – I come from a very religious background and because of my own experiences I tend to have angry feelings about religion generally and Christianity specifically. But I also know that religion is really important to a lot of people (including LGBT people!), and there are plenty of wonderful compassionate people who are also very religious. I’m sure there are a lot of Christians who are frustrated and angry to see their faith being represented by this kind of hateful bigoted bullshit too.

      • My mother is religious and reads the bible everyday. But she chooses to believe that God made me this way, so obviously there is nothing wrong with it. I know that this makes me privileged, and I really wish that wasn’t the case… Yes, the Bible does contain “ammunition of bigotry against a lot of innocent souls”, but it also teaches love, does it not? I think it reflects on individual people whether they choose to focus on the love or the hate. How could any logical, goodhearted person think that God would love someone who bullies or even murders a human being because of their orientation, but would condemn a person who loves another human being just because that human is of the same gender?

  5. Tennessee’s one of those one step forward, fifty steps backwards kind of places.

    It’s strange living here since on a local and individual level, I rarely run into any really overt homophobia from anyone but the very religious, and most people are open to at least talking about it and listening (though a lot of that is due to living in a fairly large city). In fact, locally we’ve made some strides towards some measure of equality, not great ones, but important baby steps. But the state legislature is an entirely different bag of grits. I don’t know if anyone caught it, but a bit before the Kansas anti-lgbt segregation law blew up, the Tennessee state senate actually proposed a similar piece of legislation, that then quietly died in committee after all the bad press surrounding Kansas. We also had the whole no trans people in public restrooms debacle a while back too, so this bill is not in the least bit surprising. I’m really over our state legislature right now.

    • So. I’m moving to Chattanooga this Summer. Don’t know a soul there. This article, coupled with a few previous experiences in the aforementioned city, have me a touch nervous. Do I really have anything to worry about? (You just said you’re from TN, so I know that could be any city, but thought you might have some insight!)

      • I actually live in and grew up in Chattanooga! It’s a pretty great town, and I’ve almost never had any real problem beyond the typical close mindedness. That’s actually what I meant in that the local level is comparatively progressive. Our newspaper even had a pretty decent article on the trans community here (not perfect but the tone was positive which is a lot), and most coverage of lgbt issues tend to have either a positive or neutral spin to them. One thing is that while there is a community here, it’s very, very quiet (which is slowly changing). It’s getting better though as we’re attracting more of a young and liberal element. We actually have a small Pride, one of the city council members is openly gay, and we just passed an ordinance granting benefits to city employees in same sex relationships! It’s also a beautiful city, and most people are friendly, so it’s a pretty cool place to live. I wouldn’t worry, just be aware. Also, if you still don’t know a soul when you move, send me a pm, and I can help with that!

        • Another Chattanooga native here… although I don’t live in TN anymore, Chattanooga is generally an okay place to be as a queer adult. Growing up gay there was certainly Not Easy, but I’ve found that in my adult life, people at home follow the rule of letting my business be my business. It’s sort of too late to change me now, and nobody wants to be that most terrible and rare of all things, an impolite Southerner. I’ve visited home in the past with my very visibly gay ex-partner, and we got some looks walking around town, but people were uniformly nice to her.

          I do think it’s helpful being able to pick your battles, though, and being okay with not mentioning your private life when you’re dealing with people who seem like they might react weirdly. The DADT attitude means that you run into a fair number of folk who are “fine with the gays, as long as they don’t flaunt their lifestyle,” etc etc blah blah blah. When I encounter this where I live now, I’m more inclined to make a point of addressing that attitude. At home in TN, though, I let it go more often because that’s sort of how Southerners manage to be so damn chipper to each other all the time.

          Chattanooga has a lot of great culture, though, and is beautiful, and has a growing queer community with history. You might not see it if you don’t know to look, but there will be plenty of awesome people once you scratch the surface.

        • also grew up near chattanooga! i came out in high school, and though it was rough at times (and *very* bible-centric), i never really felt unsafe, and i learned a lot about how very loyal my friends truly were.

          these days, i wouldn’t hesitate to live there as an out queer person. i think there has to be an understanding that some people will try to talk religion at you, but if you can let that roll off your back, they will for the most part be very kind. i’d say there’s a difference between what people claim to believe on sundays and how they actually treat the people around them, and in this case, it tends to work in our favor.

          plus, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to live. there’s so much hiking and rafting nearby that if you’re an outdoorsy person, you’ll be in heaven.

          and one of my high school friends puts on one hell of a drag show at Images on the weekend. ;)

      • Hey, thank you all!! I’m taking a job at TVA which I originally turned down because I didn’t really think I’d enjoy Chattanooga. Obviously I’ve changed my mind.

        I grew up in Atlanta, which is a very special breed of Southern (and super gay-friendly, despite the state’s overall conservatism). From what you all have said, Chattanooga is nothing I can’t handle. You’ve eased my nerves considerably and I really appreciate it! Ms. BlueBerry, I will probably be in touch this summer. :) I seriously don’t know anyone in the city outside of my boss-to-be. And, Finstergrrrl, I’ll make a point to check out Images!

  6. Such utter bullshit. I am so sick of these religious (well, conservative Christian, really, let’s be real) bullying bills trying to legalize discrimination and proselytizing by Christians. Luckily, as with a lot of other similar religious bills, they’ll get overturned as soon as a non-Christian tries to take advantage of them.

  7. as a native tennesseean, and as someone who heard bible verses recited over the PA of her *public* junior high every morning, i’d say this sounds about right.

    and oh yes, absolutely high school football captains, because they’re the ones leading the weekly FCA rally at the flagpole (prayer meeting). that would be the specific reason for including them in the bill. it’s bizarre how unsurprised i am.

    • Tbh part of me doesn’t really feel like this bill will change much, so much of what it lays out happens already. Still worse to have it completely enshrined by law like this, but, yeah… :/

  8. I think I’m going to have to stitch my beloved rainbow butterfly Dollywood patch onto my Vols sweater in protest since I live too far away from TN now to do anything else about this bs.

    It breaks my heart because I have so many great memories and people I loved in that state and now everytime I hear it mentioned I cringe a little because it is always some terrible awful no-good news.

    Dolly would TOTALLY not approve. Can we just start a letter writing campaign directly to her about this nonsense?

  9. Only my intense love of Dolly Parton stops me from erasing anything Tennessee-shaped from my life – what a ridiculous bill.

    Forget “religious freedom”, how about plain old FREEDOM for everyone, regardless of social/cultural or religious beliefs?

    Why do these right-wing advocates waste so much time/money trying to cock-block alternative opinions? Oh yeah, because otherwise people might notice that they’re just as flawed as the rest of us. All laws/regulations should protect all people and their freedom to be who they want and not cause harm to others. Anyone that preaches otherwise has something to hide.

  10. Stories like this prove to me that religion has no place in society. Humans can’t use it right and probably never will. Just another tool for brainwashing & control.

  11. “Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Christian students who could witness their religion being misrepresented as intolerant by students who ascribe to different interpretations of the bible”

    Not everyone is as rash in their interpretations of the bible. I’m glad this article acknowledges that. The hate and homophobia of a group of humans is just totally unacceptable. I hope that the kids in Tennessee, of all genders, orientations, religions, and beliefs, can be resilient through this and make it through alright.

  12. If I were going to school in Tennessee, I would totally be starting a local chapter of the Church of Satan right now.

  13. As a native Nashvillian and active member of the lgbtq community here, I would just like to say: sorry y’all.

    • As a Christian, I pray for peace for you. These are horrible men. I do pray for their repentance but they are filled with the hate of Satan. Their aim is to cause division and danger for everyone, not just LBGT. You’re a good person .

  14. Clearly-unconstitutional anti-gay and anti-trans laws like this are pretty much the same as the clearly-unconstitutional extreme anti-abortion laws they’ve been afflicting people with in such a special way the last couple years, i.e., disingenuous, insincere, “red meat for the GOP base” measures. Win or lose, they squeeze more and more money and votes out of them… not to mention “feet on the ground” like at those anti-healthcare _riots_ the other summer.

    If there’s any silver lining, it’s that these pseudo-laws make HUGE, EASY targets for litigators, so even rightwing Supreme Court justices like Roberts, to maintain a semblance of Rule of Law and the Constitution in this country, have to trim them back or strike them down. But how many of us die or are maimed or scarred until they do?

    In some situations if someone brings a totally baseless lawsuit, when they lose they have to pay a penalty, or some or all of the court costs of respondents. I wonder if the makers of “frivolous” pseudo-laws like these should be penalized too? or made liable for Wrongful Death actions? ‘legislator malpractice’?!!

    • That’s actually something that needs to start. Suing lawmakers makes perfect sense to me. Captain of the football team? What universe are these morons living in? It’ll get much, much worse from here. They are going to hand pick the next attorney general so the slide will be greased all the way to Hells bowels. The only good that will come of it is the documentation of how far a state can go down without being reeled in by an entity with more might and reason. I.e. They make a law that they can fire you without cause, then make a law that you can bring a gun to work against the owners wishes. Well, the owner can fire you for any reason. So when the atty. general pointed that out, Ron Ramsey went ballistic. …. To be able to inflict harm based on religious beliefs, they’ve tried to aim it from a Christian gun toward an LBGT member. Anybody with any brains knows that opens up ANY religion to fire at ANYONE. I’m not interested in seeing this one played out, but I wonder when the first gay teen suicide will be challenged in court and who the defendant will be. I suppose it ties the principles hands. If he stops the bullying,meh goes to jail. If he doesn’t stop the bullying, he goes to jail.

  15. We should totally set up The Church of Gay. We can worship Queen Bey, Ellen (one and two), adorn ourselves in Bette Porter Power Suits and breakdance around burning effigies Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmanm or whoever while singing Tegan and Sara tunes. it’d be awesome!

  16. It seems to me that the amount of backlash from the American religious extremists is a result of a broken system of politics. Candidates for government positions heavily rely on funding from corporations owned by people sitting on a lot of wealth and conservative agendas. So most definitely, whoever’s funding politicians is a huge influence on the sway of controversial decisions. The people who try to force their religious right on the rest of the country are the same people that would sleep with their guns in their arms because “they can”. It’s all about power.. People who push religion on others are searching for a position of power over others in order to establish a feeling of status and control. It’s something that is passed down through generations. Kids who’s parents are pushing for this kind of thing are going to feel the same need for control and this law is giving them the encouragement to squash the opinions of others in a conquest for you said it, control.

    • I read something along those lines….tribal thought. Check out the elections. What’s your platform going to be? “I Can be more insane than he/she can be?” …. And yes, it’s generational. Where you and I would vacate in Jamaica or somewhere, a portion would be to observe their culture. Tribal thinkers FEAR thought other than their own. It’s generational. At it’s center is a self-esteem that is so lacking that it’s almost non-existent. The bag of envy that they carry is like a bail of hay on their shoulders. They honestly live and die without a free breath. East Tennessee is as clickish as the sects in extreme Islam. They are as mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore, and there’s not a soul attacking them. Shadow enemies !

  17. It is disconcerting that our “politicians” care more about who likes who instead of the poverty, weak economy, lack of jobs and education. Acts like these have me feeling embarrassed for this countryabs fact the fact that people keep voting these horrible people into office.

  18. It is disconcerting that our “politicians” care more about who likes who instead of the poverty, weak economy, lack of jobs and failing education. Acts like these have me feeling embarrassed for this country. The fact that these politicians keep getting voted into office is shameful.

  19. Here is what the Republican Party condones. They believe you can bash the gay out of a kid, or pray away the gay, but if all that fails, and the kids take their own lives, they welcome that because they know they don’t have the LGBT vote anyway. Out of America’s 2.6 million homeless youth, over 40% are LGBT children kicked out of home from as young as 11 upwards by their religious Republican parents. Of those, over 60% contemplate suicide in their first year of homelessness, succeeding at up to 14x the national average for youth suicide:


    Ronin Shimizu 12yo

    Jaheem Herrera 11yo

    Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover 11yo

    Kenneth James Weishuhn Jr 14yo

    Jamie Hubley 15yo

    Jamey Rodemeyer 14yo

    Seth Walsh 13yo

    Justin Aaberg 13yo

    Kameron Jacobsen 14yo

    Billy Lucas 15yo

    Cody Barker 17yo

    Asher Brown 13yo

    Raymond Chase 19yo

    Tyler Clementi 18yo

    Brandon Bitner 14yo

    Rafael Morelos 14yo

    Jeffrey Fehr 18yo

    Dominic Crouch 15yo (and his dad 6 months later)

    Jordan Yenor 14yo

    Lance Lundsten 18yo

    Aaron Jurek 15yo

    Samantha Johnson 13yo

    Thomas John ‘TJ’ Hayes

    EricJames Borges 19yo

    Brandon Elizares 16yo

    David Hernandez 16yo

    Josh Pacheco 17yo

    Tim Ribberink 20yo

    Carlos Vigil 17yo

    AJ Betts 16yo

    Jacob Rogers 18yo

    Phillip Parker 14yo

    Jadin Bell 15yo

    Sergio David Urrego Reyes 16yo

    Elisabeth Lowe 14yo

    Josh (Leelah) Alcorn 17yo

    Zander Mahaffey 15yo

    Blake Brockington 18yo

    Kyler Prescott 14yo

    Adam Kizer 16yo

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