Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t think bills dealing with sexual orientation are the best use of lawmakers’ time this session.
Haslam was asked specifically about whether he sees a connection between bills such as one to ban teaching about homosexuality in lower grades and two teen suicides in as many months by Middle Tennessee students who were reportedly bullied for being gay.
“Obviously, that’s not the environment we want to set in Tennessee,” he said. “In terms of legislation, I think there’s better things for us to focus on this year.”
The governor’s comments came hours before Dennis Shepard – the father of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998 because of his sexual orientation – held a press conference, in conjunction with the Tennessee Equality Project, to express concerns about a number of bills, which critics have called “anti-gay.” He also called for the state to enact a hate-crimes law similar to existing federal legislation.
Shepard is in town for a Metro Human Relations Commission forum on hate-crime prevention to be held beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday, at Tennessee State University’s Avon Campus Auditorium.
Since the legislative session began two weeks ago, a number of controversial bills pertaining to homosexuality have cropped up.
The so-called “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill returned again and currently rests in the House Education Subcommittee, after passing in the Senate last year.
Last week, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, withdrew a bill to regulate which public restrooms and changing rooms a transgender person could use. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Richard Floyd, told his hometown paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he’d likely react violently “if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there.”
“I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there,” Floyd told the newspaper. “I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.”
Last year, the governor signed legislation that overturned anti-discrimination ordinances in Nashville and elsewhere.
While Haslam said the bill was aimed at protecting business from government intrusion, it had the effect of undoing protections for gays, lesbians and transgendered people, like the ones passed by the Metro Council.
The topic of much conversation Wednesday was the bill known to critics as the “Right-to-Bully.”
The original version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, was filed last year but never came to a vote in either chamber. Talking to reporters Wednesday, Family Action Council of Tennessee president David Fowler said the bill’s language had been reworked and that a new version would be filed Thursday. Fowler is a former GOP state senator from Signal Mountain.
Fowler acknowledged the bill’s original language was “apparently not sufficient to communicate what we were trying to do.” The initial bill had drawn national criticism for language that critics said would protect bullying, as long as it was done on religious or political grounds.
Fowler said the bill’s aim is actually to reduce bullying in public schools — but without infringing on the rights of students to engage in free speech and religious expression.
“We have to appreciate that the same First Amendment that is disregarded today to suppress speech you don’t like, is the principle that tomorrow may be used to suppress your speech,” he said. “So, we have to appreciate the First Amendment cuts both ways.”
As for the new version of the bill, Fowler said it would try to define situations that called for action by school administrators.
“Specifically, if a student reports harm to themselves or their property, or the threat of harm to themselves or their property, that in itself should be enough to demand that the administrator investigate that situation, take action, and in our bill what is done would need to be reported to others who can monitor the situation,” he said.
Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the governor’s office hadn’t reviewed the bill in detail, but that Haslam has expressed concerns about the legislation.