Tennessee 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Too Extreme For Ultra-conservative Legislature

Lost in the wake of the media firestorm surrounding last week’s landmark Supreme Court cases related to same sex marriage — United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry — was the sputtering death of two ill-fated anti-LGBT bills in Tennessee.

The Classroom Protection Act, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “would have forced select Tennessee school officials to notify parents of children who privately discussed their sexual orientation.” 

First introduced by state Senator Stacey Campfield (R) in 2011, the legislation angered LGBT rights advocates by stating: “At grade levels pre-K through eight (pre-K-8), any such classroom instruction, course materials, or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.” (Emphasis mine.)

The bill anticlimactically died in committee, after a motion by state Rep. John Ragan (R) received no seconding votes, effectively killing the bill.

The second piece of legislation to flicker-out in the state last week “would have removed funding for the operation and maintenance of campus police from any university with an ‘all-comers’ non-discrimination policy.”

The bill was introduced by state Rep. Mark Pody (R), responding to Vanderbilt University’s recent (and controversial) amendment to their nondiscrimination clause prohibiting registered student organizations (RSOs) from discriminating against potential members or club leaders.

Vanderbilt invoked the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez by stating that “all Vanderbilt students are eligible for memberships in all RSOs … for example, Republicans and Independents are eligible to join the College Democrats, and any member may run for office.” They maintained a standing exception for single-sex fraternities and sororities.

The clause has angered members of campus Christian groups, who claim they’ve been feeling mounting discrimination from university officials. Vanderbilt junior Jordan Rodgers, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, is frustrated that campus groups are now unable to set their own requirements for leadership on the grounds of religion or status: “If someone that doesn’t share the faith is teaching, then what’s the point of even having these organizations?”

Pody took the reactionary bill “off notice” when Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper (D) questioned the constitutionality of applying such a restriction to private universities.

LGBT rights advocates can find some solace in the derailment of these bills in the heart of a particularly challenging legislative environment — an unlikely scenario just a few years ago, and an unthinkable one a few years before that. The life and death of these legislative footnotes is just the latest episode in a continued struggle as LGBT peoples and their allies seek a way to peacefully coexist among Southern conservatives and traditionalist Christians — a process that necessarily demands some initial give-and-take.

The non-event of these bills is the event, and the story; sometimes no ground lost is good ground gained. It is important to remember that this country is evolving — albeit a few paces behind its president — and faster in some places than others. The recent populous wave of same-sex marriage proponents, pro-equality politicians and Facebook equal signs should be taken as the latest in a string of victories, but not be confused with  success.

Nor should a few ill-fated bills, or the occasional misstep, be mistaken for loss.