STAFF REPORTS | NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Senate passed a bill on a 32-0 vote, Monday that seeks to expand religious liberty protections for students in public schools. The language of the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act” states 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.”
The legislation’s primary sponsors, state Rep. Courtney Rogers (R) and Sen. Ferrell Haile (R), introduced the measure after a teacher asked a 10-year-old student to choose a subject other than God to write about as the person she admired most, according to the Associated Press. The state House passed the bill earlier this month by a vote of 90-2.
Haile, speaking to the local paper, the Tennessean, characterized the legislation as a pre-preemptive safeguard against potential lawsuits challenging school officials for permitting religious expression.
The ACLU told the Associated Press that the final version of the bill, SB 1793/HB 1547, “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.”
The ACLU added “Conversely, if a student of a minority religious faith (e.g., a Buddhist, a Wiccan, etc.) or a non-believer were to obtain a ‘position of honor,’ as defined under this bill, that student would be permitted to subject all classmates to prayer and proselytizing specific to his or her faith tradition in connection with school events. In both cases, parents would have no recourse to ensure that their children were not coerced into such religious exercise.”
The measure is expected to go to Tennessee's Republican Governor Bill Haslam for his signature. Should the Governor veto the measure, political analysts say that any veto Haslam considers likely will be overridden given the overwhelming support by the legislature.
LGBT activist and blogger David Badash took aim at the measure Tuesday noting,
"An evangelical student, or example, could preach the gospel during a science class, or “witness” during English. Attacks on LGBT people and same-sex marriage are automatically protected under this bill, offering anti-gay students a state-sponsored license to bully. And of course, a student could claim they worship Satan and subject their classmates to that “religious viewpoint” as well."
He added, "The bill, of course, likely violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but that rarely stops conservative lawmakers on a religious mission."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.