Protecting Religious Freedom or Legalizing LGBT Bullying?

In 2013, fifth-graders in a Tennessee school were asked to write an essay about people they admire.  One student chose to write about God as her most admired person.  The paper was considered thought provoking to many but unacceptable to her teacher as she was told that writing about God was not allowed.  Even though the school ruled against the teacher and allowed the girl to submit the paper – she received a 100% – this small scenario began a series of events culminating in the Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act.

The Religious Viewpoints Anti-discrimination Act is a law that has recently passed through both houses of Tennessee legislature.  Currently awaiting the governor’s signature, it is one of the latest pieces of legislature in a series of almost identical laws supported by conservative Christian groups nationwide.  In Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina, laws have already been passed protecting students’ rights to free religious speech; and in Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia, similar laws are pending.

The aim of this Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act in Tennessee is to protect the rights of religious public school students to express their views during school hours.  The bill indicates that schools “may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.”  However, while this law will protect religious freedom, some are concerned that it may potentially legalize religious majority domination and LGBT bullying.

While the religious free speech will be censored to remove profane, sexually explicit, disruptive and/or defamatory items, there is the chance that a student will include political topics within his/her religious expressions.  Furthermore, these topics can be offensive to others with the LGBT community being a particular target.

Charles Haynes, the director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at Newseum, stated that the topic of the religious free speech has anger building from all individuals.  In an interview with The Atlantic, he argues that on “the conservative Christian side, they see this as being used to inappropriately hush up kids. But the reality is that this speech does trigger a lot of emotion… we’ve come to a place where kids talking about homosexuality being sinful [is considered] unacceptable in public schools.”

So, here’s the concern:  If a child were to state their opinion of homosexuality being sinful whilst protected by the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, would this be considered a case of LGBT bullying?  Hedy Weinberg, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, believes that “despite its name, this legislation (Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act) crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious views on other students.”

Others believe that this bill has very little to do with homosexuality and LGBT discrimination.  The Tennessee Equality Project, an organization that supports LGBT efforts, believes that the new legislation does not allow for the bullying of LGBT students.  In a statement released on their Facebook page, they claim, “The bill is a bad bill, but it is not about LGBT bullying.”

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