As it's currently written, a proposed state law could actually make it legal for a young Christian conservative to bully a gay classmate, so long as he doesn't threaten the kid, beat him up, or break his stuff.
Dubbed the "License To Bully" bill by its opponents, the proposed legislation attempts to clarify the state's existing school bullying law so that it "may not prohibit [a student's] expression of religious, philosophical, or political views as long as such expression does not include a threat of physical harm to a student or of damage to a student's property."
The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), a religious, anti-gay, conservative group is pushing the bill, but FACT president David Fowler said he's currently working to tweak the bill's language.
"For example, what the language was intended to say is, the definition of bullying is the same as it always has been, but be mindful of the First Amendment. In no event should a threat of violence be made regardless of the political, philosophical, or religious terminology used," Fowler said.
Regardless of how it's worded, the intent of the bill, Fowler said, is to protect the free speech of children who may have views that differ from those of their peers or teachers.
While that may sound good in theory, the re-worded bill, which is expected to be reintroduced next week, would likely still make it okay for religious kids to taunt others for having different views, so long as no one is threatened or feels threatened.
"This certainly affects [lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual] folks, but it also gives license to people of different faiths to intimidate and harass each other," said Jonathan Cole, Shelby County Committee chair of the Tennessee Equality Project. "You could have Christians going after Jews or Jews going after Muslims. They can just claim they're expressing their religious point of view and say it's not bullying."
Fowler claims the bill would protect school administrators who might be tempted to suppress a kid's right to free speech.
"It's increasingly becoming an issue that administrators are so fearful that anybody will feel offended or insulted that they start preventing any expression of views they deem unpopular, no matter how civilly those views are expressed," Fowler said.
He points to the example of Texas honor student Dakota Ary, who was punished last fall for telling a classmate that he believed homosexuality is wrong.
A similar bill that protected bullies on "religious or moral" grounds failed in Michigan last November, and Michigan senator Gretchen Whitmer was one of the leading opponents of that bill.
"I'm a lawyer, and I know that no state can abridge someone's First Amendment free speech rights, so I know that these bills are not about protecting people's speech. It's about legitimizing reasons to torment a student in school," Whitmer said. "It's better to have nothing on the books than to have a license to bully."
Although the Michigan bill passed their state Senate, it was killed in the House after a segment on The Colbert Report making fun of the bill led to a firestorm of negative media attention. Whitmer helped the House draft a new bill that simply required schools to launch no-bullying programs.
Cole said bills like the one in Tennessee and the one that was shot down in Michigan are a last-ditch effort by the religious right.
"This is where the religious right is so desperate. They see themselves as losing battles in the future now that younger generations have a very rational viewpoint of lesbian, gay, and transgender people," Cole said. "Their last battlefield is to pull out their own social conservative agenda in the schools, and they're trying to use these kids as pawns."