A House subcommittee voted last week to put on hold for another year a proposal to ban sex-ed instruction and discussion in public-school grades K-8 that touch on non-heterosexual topics.
Lawmakers on the committee said they want the state Board of Education to take more time studying the issue, even though bill sponsor Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, says they didn’t spend much time examining the issue last year.
And he isn’t optimistic that the board will take his concerns seriously going forward. “If they didn’t look into it last time, I highly doubt they’ll look into it this time,” he told reporters after the hearing.
According to Campfield ‘s proposal, HB821, public elementary or middle schools would be banned from providing any instruction or materials that discuss sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.
“We’re not going to advocate for homosexuality. We’re not going to advocate against homosexuality,” Campfield said. Neutrality is part of the intent of the legislation, he maintains.
He also pointed to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed after the Knox County School System closed student computer access to web sites that discussed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues.
Campfield said he alerted the Department of Education to the issue, but the members don’t seem particularly interested. “I already handed handed them everything on a silver platter,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can do. I can’t make it any easier for them.”
DOE officials say Campfield’s concerns are essentially baseless and warrant little attention.
“The only mention of sexuality is in the context of abstinence,” said Bruce Opie, legislative liaison for the state Department of Education. “We really don’t…in the K-8 curriculum…(get into) any sort of information on sexual preferences.”
Opie said he’s never heard an official complaint about the issue in the 26 years he has worked with the department. The teachers’ association also denied Campfield’s claims.
“Public schools are being attacked for something that is not happening, and I don’t appreciate it,” said Jerry Winters, Government Relations Manager for the Tennessee Education Association. “Teachers are not teaching alternate lifestyles in the classroom. If that was happening, they would be told to stop it. If they didn’t stop it, they would rightfully be fired. This is an attempt to bash public schools, and it is an attempt to bash teachers.”
Fans of the bill said the legislation is a solid preventative measure.
“I don’t feel any threat in this kind of legislation,” said Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican. “We’re creating a safe harbor here…we’re drawing a line in the sand.”
Republican Joey Hensley, of Howenwald, said he has children in the first and second grade, and he’s worried about what lessons they take home.
“We’re seeing in other states (that) they’re bringing books home that I don’t agree with. I don’t want my child exposed to this. If we don’t have it now, that’s great. We don’t want to have that problem.”
Other lawmakers say passing legislation to address a problem that doesn’t yet exist is unnecessary.
“What we’re doing is we’re dealing with a figment of his imagination,” Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, said of Campfield. “This is not based on any evidence, and if we start passing legislation based on what a person is thinking (is happening)…we’d be passing stupid legislation.”
Reading from the results of last year’s study committee, Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, said, “Local education agencies teach what they consider to be age appropriate topics…which does not include homosexuality as a topic. The Department of Education’s healthy living curriculum does not include homosexuality as a topic, which, to me, means it’s not being done.”
Yet, supporters of the bill insisted that the state act now to avoid allowing teachers to discuss homosexuality with students.
“Without any guidelines, it allows teachers on their own to venture off into this area. We should draw a line…and make it clear to teachers…this is some place you don’t go,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.”Just like they’ve probably been told, because of court cases, there are places dealing with religion that you don’t go.”
Winningham asked to send the bill back to the Board of Education for more study. Dunn, Hensley, and Weaver voted against the motion.
Rep. Ron Lollar, who said he served on a school board for 10 years, was the only Republican to vote against the bill.
“I can say unequivocally, and without a doubt, the state never — in any way, form, or fashion — insinuated that anything be taught that I’ve heard in this room,” he said.
The companion bill in the Senate was scheduled to be taken up later that afternoon in the Education Committee, but committee chair Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, announced at the outset of the meeting that the bill is dead for the year.