Tennessee's 'Religious Viewpoints' Bill is a License to Bully

In Depth

Tennessee joins Oklahoma in passing a new piece of legislation which will basically allow the bullying of students by other students based on religious grounds. Texas, yeehaw, already has such a law.

The language of the bill phrases this as an anti-discrimination bill. While the very first paragraph of the legislation would seem to indicate that only religious views on subjects which are “otherwise permissible” by the “local educational authority” or “LEA” may be allowed, that’s pretty broad:

This bill prohibits an LEA from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject. This bill requires an LEA to 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.

The obvious example is that if romantic or sexual relationships are a permissible subject (and they are to some degree, school is awash in them, both in the coursework and in the cases of individuals students at the junior high school and high school levels), then students with anti-LGBT views will probably be able to express their views of why homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender variance are immoral and individuals who fall within those identities (which may include classmates) are evil, mentally disturbed, going to hell, etc.

It looks like there was one minor amendment to the bill which at least limits the verbal expression of these views (you can see here the change in from before the ellipses to after these ellipses, specifically the last line which modifies “written and oral” to written), unfortunately, a lot of damage can be done if other students must be subjected to artwork or essays.

This bill specifies 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 bill authorizes students to express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content. This amendment restricts the authorization to “written” beliefs.

The biggest issue with this legislation, legally speaking, is that it most likely violates the “establishment” clause of the United States Constitution because of “disparate impact.” Strictly speaking, given the religious make up of Tennessee, this is de facto legally protecting religious views, and specific religious views, over secular views. Although the language would allow supposedly a student with opposing religious views (say an LGBT+ Christian teen who is a member of the Unitarian church or the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church USA), the dynamics of the current paradigm would likely drown them out. A greater concern is how this affects those that wish to disagree but are agnostic/atheist and have no religious grounds on which to argue. If this is not considered a “religious viewpoint,” are they now silenced?

I wouldn’t be surprised of these legislators have very different views about LGBT+ organisations on school grounds, but according to the ACLU, they sure don’t have a problem with stacking the deck with “positions of honor” which will, likely be filled mostly if not entirely be members of one or several closely related religious traditions. Should an exception exist, then the alternative isn’t really any better:

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…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.

Of course, I personally think the idea of forcing Christian students, who spend so much time witnessing to others, to sit through a ten or fifteen minute speech about the Buddha or Wicca or Islam or Shinto or Zoroaster at graduation would be hilarious—I also find it pretty illegal and anti-establishment clause.

Alas, this will likely soon be a reality in Tennessee. Considering that both houses of the legislature passed the bill unanimously, it’s probably not even realistic to hope that a veto by the governor will make any difference. He’ll probably just be overridden if he does. It would show a great deal of moral courage, but it likely wouldn’t stop the bill from becoming law, as it looks certain to become.

Image via AP.

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