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Tenn. OKs religious freedom bill that could be a ‘license to bully’ gay students

Tuesday, March 25, 2014
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee state Senate on Monday passed a bill that seeks to expand religious liberty protections for students in public schools, a measure critics say could lead to hate speech against gays, and others, in public schools, all in the name of religion.

Tennessee state capitol in Nashville.

Tennessee state capitol in Nashville.

The “Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act” was passed by a vote of 32-0, and states that any 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 bill adds.

The bill’s chief sponsors, state Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville, Tenn.) and Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin, Tenn.), 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.

Haile characterized the legislation as a preemptive safeguard against potential lawsuits challenging school officials for permitting religious expression.

But according to the ACLU, the final version of the bill “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.”

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“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 ACLU said, in a statement.

Critics add that the bill would create a state-sponsored “license to bully” by subjecting LGBT students to religious messages condemning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The state House passed the bill earlier this month by a vote of 90-2. The measure now heads to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for approval.

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