Culture warriors are on the offensive in the opening days of this year’s legislative session, much to the chagrin of Republican leaders who hoped to avoid controversy in advance of the fall elections.
Gun enthusiasts are demanding another expansion of their rights and threatening political reprisals against lawmakers who stand in their way, and social conservatives are pushing measures to beat back what they see as a homosexual threat to society.
On the agenda again this year is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which drew international attention to Tennessee last session and cleared the Senate in watered-down form.
The original version made it illegal for teachers to discuss homosexuality in the classroom before the ninth grade. Senators amended it to allow only the teaching of “natural human reproduction science” in public schools. Democrats argued the amendment actually liberalizes state law, which now makes it a misdemeanor to teach any kind of sex education before the ninth grade. The bill’s critics say they still fear it will stop teachers from speaking to students about the bullying of gay teens.
Nashville high school students last year made regular trips to the Capitol to demonstrate against the bill, chanting “It’s OK to say gay!” Protesters planned to return last week as a House subcommittee was scheduled to take up the proposal for the first time. But the sponsor, Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, postponed the debate.
Another social conservative measure attracting publicity early this session is the bill by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, to make it illegal for transgender people to enter a public bathroom not designated for use by the gender on their birth certificate.
“I’m just sick and tired of society having to adjust to every little alternate lifestyle or little whim of someone who thinks they’re different,” Floyd said. “We’ve got the tail wagging the dog. If things go in the future like Washington wants them to go, people will be marrying their dogs and cats and horses. We can’t continue to let society go down a slippery slope of depravity and survive as a society. We can’t do it.”
His proposal drew quick outrage in the GLBT community.
“If anything, it’s making us a laughingstock,” said Marisa Richmond, lobbyist for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. “We’re talking about harassing people who are taking care of a basic biological function, and that’s all this does.”
But if Floyd was defiant, his Senate sponsor — Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga — was taken aback by the sudden publicity and quickly withdrew the companion bill from consideration.
Also generating Internet buzz is a Christian right-backed bill to create an exception to the state’s anti-bullying law for schoolchildren who are expressing religious views.
The Family Action Council of Tennessee, which has made the bill a top priority, denies it would lead to more bullying of gay students.
“I can’t think of anyone who holds to true Christianity that finds it appropriate to slur people and justify it as consistent with their Christianity,” said FACT’s David Fowler.
But Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, the state’s main gay rights organization, has denounced Fowler’s bill as “the License to Bully Act.”
“If made into law, FACT would give students a ‘license to bully’ that allows them to hide their irrational biases behind an extreme religious belief,” Sanders said.
The proposal is all the more outrageous to gay people because it comes only a month after the suicide of Jacob Rogers, a gay teen in Cheatham County.
For their part, gun lovers are angry at House Speaker Beth Harwell and her Republican supporters for refusing to expand Second Amendment rights despite the party’s large majority in the legislature. In an alert to supporters, the Tennessee Firearms Association denounced Harwell as an opponent of gun rights. The association went so far as to equate her to Jimmy Naifeh, the old bull of the legislature who was vilified by conservatives when he was speaker during Democratic rule.
“[W]hat should firearms owners and 2nd Amendment supporters expect from the General Assembly in 2012 — nothing, nothing at all. Since 1995, legislative progress on firearms issues could prove ultimately to be worse with a Republican governor and Beth Harwell as speaker of the House (and those in the caucus who support her) than in any year in which the House was controlled by Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Democratic leadership.”
In its alert, the association accused Harwell of threatening to retaliate against lawmakers who push new gun laws. “One must wonder to what extent the pro-2nd Amendment legislators are being suppressed by ‘suggestions’ of future consequences coming from the Speaker’s office,” the association said before issuing its own threat.
“Pay close attention in 2012. Tennessee conservatives, firearms owners, 2nd Amendment supporters are now faced with vetting out the disingenuous and making sure that their actions are recalled when its time to raise money, campaign and vote. In particular, Harwell and a few others in leadership may be hard to defeat in an election but those in the caucus who voted to put them in power and who support them in power may be much easier targets. ... ”
The legislature adopted guns-in-bars and expansions of Second Amendment rights in the last General Assembly. But after helping the GOP gain absolute control of the legislature in the 2010 elections, the gun lobby has been getting the cold shoulder. They want the right to carry handguns on college campuses and in city and county parks. As the law stands now, local governments can ban guns in their parks.
Legislative leaders, even including the gun rights champion Ron Ramsey, have dismissed the need for new laws. Lawmakers are worried the media will paint the GOP as extreme on the issue, putting off independent voters who expect state leaders to focus on improving the economy.
Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesboro, and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, are certain to draw publicity with their legislation authorizing counties to erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses and on their grounds.
In a long line of cases beginning in 1946, the Supreme Court has barred state-endorsed public displays of religious symbols or acts. The question has been whether the government appears to be endorsing one religion over another or any religion over atheism. In the case of monuments to the Ten Commandments, the answer has been consistently yes.
Proponents of the monuments have tried to get around these rulings by surrounding the Ten Commandments with other monuments. Monuments to the Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the constitution of the great state of Tennessee are mentioned as possibilities in Hill’s legislation. The idea, not a novel one in battles over monuments across the country, is to claim that the Ten Commandments have become so secularized that they are devoid of religious meaning.