Legislation that critics see as a means of promoting creationism in classrooms was revived last week after a year of dormancy while a so-called “don’t say gay” bill suffered a setback that some supporters say is only temporary.
Having drawn national media attention, those two bills are perhaps the best-known and most controversial measures in a broad agenda of social conservative causes pushed by Republican legislators.
But they are not necessarily the most significant among the multiple bills with religious, moral and social overtones.
The bill on teaching of scientific theories in Tennessee schools – dubbed “the monkey bill” by the National Center for Science Education – passed the House last year. House Sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said it was to promote “critical thinking” about scientific theories by protecting teachers from discipline when they engage students in discussion about prevailing scientific theories such as evolution or global warming.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, refused to put the bill to a vote in a Senate committee last year. But he did so last week, winning Senate Education Committee approval of SB893 after attaching an amendment that Watson said “neither side particularly likes.”
It is now scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday evening.
Previous debate on the issue, Watson said, amounted to “a series of red herrings offered by both proponents and opponents.”
The rewrite, Watson said, is intended to require that school lectures stick with the curriculum, which would include evolution but not creationism, but provide a guideline for dealing with student questions that come up. Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, gave the example of a student asking about Sunday school teachings that conflict with evolution.
The “don’t say gay” bill has gone through changes as well since introduced last year by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, as a fairly straightforward prohibition on discussions of homosexuality in grades kindergarten through eight. It passed the Senate last year, but has been stalled in the House Education Committee. Last week, it was delayed again until the last meeting of the committee this year – probably in two weeks. Instead, Dunn and Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said they were deferring to another bill that might eliminate the need for SB49.
The potential substitute bill is HB3621, a comprehensive rewrite of the state’s sex education policy, known as the Family Life Curriculum, was drafted by David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
It is sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, and makes sexual abstinence almost the sole focus of education efforts and authorizes lawsuits by parents against teachers who violate the proposed law’s provisions.
Last week’s move was widely seen as sounding the death knell for “don’t say gay.” House Speaker Beth Harwell said she did not expect it to pass now.
But Campfield said Friday that such talk was “wishful thinking” by opponents. The senator said that he, Hensley and Fowler have discussed the matter and agreed on pushing the “don’t say gay” bill – Campfield prefers “don’t teach gay” or “classroom protection act” as a label — with a new amendment that incorporates a reference to the state constitution’s declaration that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
“I think this gets everything squared away,” Campfield said. “I think we can pass both.”
A sample of some other pending proposals :
-The House is scheduled to vote Monday on a bill by Rep. Mathew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceveille, that declares that “historically significant documents,” specifically including the biblical Ten Commandments, can legally be displayed in public buildings in Tennessee. The Senate companion to HB2658 is scheduled for a committee vote.
-Committee votes are scheduled in both the House and Senate this week on legislation requiring that welfare recipients take a drug test as a condition or receiving benefits. Sponsors of SB2588 are Campfield and Rep. Julia Hurley, R-Lenoir City.
-Also facing a Senate committee vote is a separate bill by Campfield (SB3019) that would expand the number of state employees required to undergo periodic drug testing. No vote has been scheduled on a proposal that would require drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment compensation benefits (SB3020).
-The House has approved 93-0 a bill by Rep. Philip Johnson, R-Peagram, that says school boards must permit teachers and other employees to participate in religious activities on school property, so long as they are not held during school hours. Inspired by a controversy over a Cheatham County school hosting regular prayers around the school flagpole, the bill (HB3266) is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing this week. The Tennessee ACLU says the measure has the potential of “making public schools into Sunday schools.”
-A bill by Campfield and Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, would impose a tax on “adult-oriented businesses” and use resulting revenue to lower other taxes. Campfield said the “tax porn, not corn” bill (SB2860) is also being modified – one change being to exempt cable television movies from the tax – and will be put forward soon in the revised format.
-The House approved 74-14 last week HB2548 by Hil and Sen. Dolores Greshaml, R-Somerville, which requires schools to notify parents of “school-associated extracurricular activities” and allows parents to block their children from attending such events. Critics say it is aimed at “gay-straight alliance” organizations and would impose an unnecessary burden on schools.
-The “Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act” (HB3616) is up for votes this week in the House and Senate Education Committees. The bill would require school systems to provide an opportunity for students to voluntarily express religious viewpoints and prohibit discrimination against them for doing so. It is sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield.