After sailing through the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives, a bill that would establish platforms for students to express their religious beliefs, is on its way to Republican governor Bill Haslam.
Tennesee's Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, or SB1793/HB 1547, purports to prevent students from being silenced when expressing their religious beliefs in the classroom, when turning in written assignments, and at official school functions, including graduation and mandatory assemblies. In addition to specifying "that a student may express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions," the bill also requires that students will "not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of the student's work." Further, the bill appears to establish special speaking engagements for students to share their religious beliefs at official school functions — and even over the school's announcement system.
Opponents of the legislation say it's the latest attempt to establish a so-called license to discriminate, this time doing so in public, state-funded schools. They say that in addition to being unnecessary, as the U.S. Constitution includes strong protections for religious liberty, in practice the law would be exploited by those wanting to impose their religious beliefs about such matters as LGBT rights, evolution, contraception, and even racial and religious diversity, on other students who don't share those perspectives.
"This bill encourages religious coercion," said the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement calling for Haslam to reject the bill. "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."
The ACLU is particularly critical of a provision of the bill that requires each school 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."
As David Badash at The New Civil Rights Movement points out, the bill likely violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, commonly recognized as mandating the separation of church and state. But Badash also notes that if the bill became law:
"An evangelical student, for 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."
The bill passed the Tennessee Senate yesterday in a unanimous vote, while the House passed the legislation, with minor amendments, on a vote of 90-2. The bill now goes to the desk of Haslam, who has not yet commented on whether he plans to sign or veto the bill.
A similar bill with the same title, coauthored by notoriously antigay Oklahoma state representative Sally Kern, passed that state's House of Representatives with a unanimous vote last month. It now sits in a Senate education committee, where it has been filed as an "emergency" bill.