The proposed bill would amend the state's current anti-bullying laws to specify that the anti-bully policy should "not be construed or interpreted to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of students and shall not prohibit their expression of religious, philosophical, or political views" as long as there's no physical threat or threat to another student's property.
David Fowler, a former Republican state Senator and current Christian activist, is pushing for the legislature to take up the bill in the new year after it stalled before the end of the last session. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Fowler sent out a newsletter for his group the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) in December that said he wants "to make sure [the law] protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality."
"The purpose is to stop bullying, not create special classes of people who are more important than others," Fowler told the Times Free Press.
Gay rights activists in the state say the new bill would create a "license to bully" gay teens, and point to the suicide of a teenager named Jacob Rogers, who had reportedly been repeatedly bullied for being gay.
"This kind of legislation can send a message that it's OK to hate and we'll even give you religious sanction for it. You can say what you want. As long as you say it's for religious reasons, you've got backup," Chris Sanders, of the Tennessee Equality Project, told WSMV4.
FACT said on its radio show of Rogers' death: "It is wrong to bully people because of their sexual practices. But it's wrong to bully people period. The larger lesson here is that these tragedies are often the rotten fruit of the all-about-me individualistic culture that comes when we deny the existence of God and his image in us. When life and people become cheap, tragedy is the result."
Tennessee's legislature previously considered a "don't say gay" bill -- which prevented teachers from discussing gays and lesbians with students in grades K-8 -- but it also stalled in the last session.
A spokesman for state Sen. Jim Tracy (R), who sponsored the bill in the last session, said Tracy is "reviewing the legislation" and will probably "narrow" the "very broad" language.
In November, Michigan's Republican-led state Senate approved a bill with similar language that carved out a "moral convictions" loophole for bullies, but they backed off and compromised in the resultant controversy.