By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill that proposes forcing schools to tell parents if their children have talked to a teacher or counselor about being gay has set the stage for a new fight over social issues in the Tennessee Legislature.
Opponents call the legislation unnecessary and an inappropriate government intrusion in family matters.
The measure, filed Tuesday by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, is already drawing attention. The Knoxville Republican was mocked by talk show host Jay Leno last week, and he made headlines in 2011 when his legislation — often called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — to ban classroom instruction or discussion of homosexuality passed the Senate. The companion bill failed in the House last year.
Campfield’s new legislation is a retooling of that bill. Like the previous measure, it would prohibit classroom discussion of anything other than natural reproduction, and it goes further by giving schools the authority to inform parents about children who talk to school officials about their sexuality.
“This is the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill on steroids,” said Chris Sanders, president of the Nashville committee of the Tennessee Equality Project, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
“It’s still meant to rule out classroom conversation about anything other than heterosexuality. But in addition, it attacks the counseling relationship between children and counselors.”
Under the current proposal, a school counselor, nurse or principal is to inform parents if a child’s “circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality.”
Campfield said he considers the “act of homosexuality” dangerous to a child’s health and safety.
“All I’m talking about is protecting children,” he said Thursday. “Keeping subjects that should be talked about by the family, where it should be, in the family.”
Campfield has received phone calls and emails about the proposal. He acknowledged telling one gay rights activist who expressed her dislike for the measure that she should see a therapist.
“She’s obviously got anger issues,” Campfield recently told The Associated Press. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
Sanders said the legislation could hurt children because it robs them of the opportunity to confidentially discuss a sensitive topic with an adult other than a parent or guardian.
“Children need to be able to have a safe place where they can talk about an issue,” he said. “A lot of things are developing in these grades, and the counselor can help a child deal constructively with issues if there’s confidentiality and trust.”
Barry Chase, president of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, agreed.
“It is unfortunate for the children, their families and our state that he would introduce legislation making some school professionals into unqualified, bigoted observers,” Chase said.
Others have said the legislation is unneeded because the state’s education curriculum doesn’t allow such discussions in the classroom.
The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, took that position when Campfield first proposed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
TEA President Gera Summerford said the group has the same stance on Campfield’s current proposal.
“Teachers always do their best to follow the curriculum,” she said. “And those people who are in the roles of school counselors and social workers, they follow the guidelines in their rules as well. So it’s really unnecessary legislation, and I don’t see that it does anything that’s going to make a whole lot of difference in what goes on in schools.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle said he also believes that the proposal is unnecessary and that it “puts government into family dynamics.”
“It’s a redefining of conservative principles that we need a bigger and more intrusive government in the lives of people,” the Memphis Democrat said. “And I just find it unnecessary and offensive.”
The proposal isn’t getting much support from GOP leaders.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville agreed that Campfield’s measure is intrusive.
“There are some things that should be left inside the family,” he said.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said her Republican caucus plans to focus on lowering taxes and creating jobs this legislative session.
“And those will be the only things that will be on our Republican caucus agenda,” she said. “But I respect the legislative process and legislators reflecting the will of the people who sent them, so that will receive fair debate as well.”
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam also said he thinks the Legislature should focus on other issues.
“It’s sort of the same response of last year, which was I’m just not sure this is something that’s needed,” he said. “When I’m out talking to people all the time, whether it’s to a Rotary Club or a school, that’s just not an issue I hear brought up.”